After a week of tacit negotiations, Alice reached an agreement with the saucer-sized spider that lived in her bathroom. They had spent an uneasy week tiptoeing around, each too afraid of the other to do anything, and through a process of trial-and-error worked out a system in which Alice got the bathroom during the day, the spider got it at night, and neither made any sudden movements. Some tension resurfaced a few days later when Alice woke up before dawn and needed to relieve herself, but a few waves of her flashlight was enough to restore peace. The light gave the spider enough warning to retreat to its den behind the sink, where it waited until Alice left—she knew it was waiting because she could see four hairy legs curled around the porcelain and its many eyes focused on her every move.
Alice got the bathroom during the day, the spider got it at night, and neither made any sudden movements.
At first that disquieted her and she dreaded using the bathroom after sundown, but after the first fortnight of their cohabitation she and the spider began to simply treat one another with courtesy and move about the bathroom as they pleased. Eventually the spider ventured forth into the bedroom and their arrangement extended to all areas of Alice’s living space. Alice’s bags, clothes, and the occasional crumb of food she tracked in attracted a smorgasbord of insect life on which the spider feasted, saving Alice the trouble of sorting cockroaches out of her socks and gear.
Indeed, society on the second floor of the student dormitory had gone down an unusual path, one which seemed stranger and stranger with the passing days of Alice’s acquaintance with her arachnid roommate. The second floor of the student dormitory was the least desirable real estate at the field station, and the field station was not desirable real estate in itself. It hid in a humid Ecuadorian jungle seven hours from the nearest town and suffered constant attacks from the nature that wished to reclaim it. At various points the field station was plagued with army ant raids, a rebel band of Capuchin monkeys, and a curious but indomitable infestation of lizards, especially skinks. There, in the worst room of an unfathomable place, Alice lived with one of humankind’s most primal enemies. After three weeks she named it Octavion. She saw him first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. She chatted to him as she brushed her teeth, at first nervously, and then wearily, or excitedly, or however the day had gone. He listened patiently from where he perched on the windowsill, keeping watch over their shared space.
For a long while she did not mention the spider to any of the other students out of fear that talking about him would break the spell. Soon, though, Octavion started to feel very real to her. She supposed it had mostly to do with her isolation. She did not have a human roommate that field season, and must be desperate to turn to a spider. Alice believed that foreign things were not truly real to those who could not fathom them, and Octavion was as knowable to her as the jungle itself. Still, he was hers.
Anyway, she told herself, she was scientist, and she knew that her association with Octavion was ecologically beneficial to them both. She watched him as he started to climb on the outside of her mosquito net. The carbon dioxide she exhaled attracted a small swarm of mosquitoes that plastered themselves to the outside of her mosquito net each night, and she thought with some satisfaction that Octavion would mow through them as a massacre. This saved her from the nighttime bites she got when she brushed against the net and the bloodsuckers bit her through the mesh, but of course, this invited the inevitable possibility that Octavion could get bored of mosquitoes and try a bite of Alice instead. It was odd how little that troubled her. She would wake up in the darkness after some creature screeched in the night, only to see Octavion’s belly just inches from her face. She just closed her eyes and fell back asleep.
The human social scene of the dormitory was concentrated on the floor below. There were several students with whom Alice had bonded, some she had known before and some that she had recently met, including Mark, the newest student from her research group. Alice liked and pitied Mark, and he was the reason she was stranded on the second floor. The first floor was mostly full because the other students were uneasy about the tarantulas that occasionally popped up on the second floor, and Mark nearly fainted when the other students warned them. This wasn’t Alice’s first field season and she let Mark claim the last bunk of the first floor so that he wouldn’t have a panic attack. It was a kind thing to do and Alice had felt good about it, even it she meant she had to climb a rickety ladder to a tarantula-infested attic by herself every night. Luckily for her, the tarantulas moved out once Octavion established himself, and now he had free reign of her room and Alice would watch him mount the occasional patrol. He was clearly some type of wolf spider, the most common spider in the South American forests, and he was territorial. After watching him chase off a juvenile pink-laced skink, Alice concluded that Octavion must be somewhat venomous: normally, skinks ate spiders. By then four weeks had passed, and Alice was too accustomed to Octavion’s presence to feel concerned.
As Octavion stalked back to his territory, victorious, Alice heard a few of the other students calling her from below, and she congratulated Octavion as she went down the ladder. She waved at the other students and told them she would be there in a minute. It was getting dark, and the solar-powered Internet connection, which was weak at the best of times, would be quickly dying. Alice trotted to the lab and dashed a quick email to her mentor: “Rose- Also, saw a baby pink laced skink in my room just now.” That was Rose’s favorite critter, and Alice thought about trying to take a picture to show Rose when she got back. She decided she probably wouldn’t be able to find it again, and went back to meet the other students. As the students sometimes did, they crowded into a dorm room and passed around a bottle of liquor. It tended to be rum, and Alice didn’t bother to find to out before she took her first swig.
After the booze made its first round, two of the students working on the monkey study claimed that they might have seen a mountain lion, which Alice knew must be a gross exaggeration: had they been sure, they would have declared it at dinner, when the professors were there. The tapir student one-upped them at once with a stunning photo of a young ocelot, which made the monkey team jealous. During the previous two field seasons when Rose had come to the field station, she and Alice had gone into the forest together every day for hours and had seen an ocelot a couple of times. This year Rose hadn’t come, and Alice didn’t feel like bragging about her own wildlife sighting, a giant anteater digging its burrow. Alice felt there was something haunting about going back to a place she had only ever been with one other person. The ghosts of the stunning animals she and Rose had seen together and the jokes they’d made hung around the trails like the spider webs she was constantly teasing out of her hair. Before the field season, Alice had come to the reluctant conclusion that she had invested too much into the idea of Rose, neglecting the reality of Rose in the process. It still felt wrong to be having this adventure without her. Alice thought about her mentor glumly as she sat back and listened to the other students boasting. She knew how to be well liked at the field station, and made sure to ooh and ah at the right moments and ask the right question to make the storyteller feel important. She didn’t need Rose, but eventually she might need these other people stuck in the thick of nowhere alongside her. Rose had taught her that.
Alice’s knowledge of field station social dynamics came over her previous two field seasons, during which she had the advantage of Rose’s advice. Rose taught her how important it was to find kindred spirits and have a break from the thrilling untamed adventure that drew her there. Field stations were strange spaces because, despite the raging wildness all around, they weren’t wild places. Alice had gathered a lot of observations about the forces that compelled intelligent people to crowd into a room full of mosquitoes and boast about the dangerous animals they had come upon in the course of their work. Plunging into the jungle each day was trying no matter how much they loved it, and field stations had to act as bastions of civilized society amidst an environment that plays by very different rules. Field stations must stick to the conventions of civilization more closely than other places. An annoyance at a university could lead to violence in the absence of other human stimuli: Alice had watched scientists almost come to blows over muddy footprints and actually come to blows over theories of kin selection.
“Alice,” one of the younger students said as the bottle came around again and Alice took a swig, “I heard that last field season you got three bullet ant stings in a single day.” The bullet ant gives the most painful insect sting in the world and was something of a badge of authenticity among the field biologists. Alice looked at Mark.
“What? They should know what a badass you are,” Mark said.
“I cried like a baby for 36 hours,” Alice told them, rolling her eyes. “I was walking along the steep part of trail 14 and the path gave way and dropped me into the ravine. I landed on a bullet ant nest and the little bastards got me three times. After that I moaned and groaned for two days while my supervisor read to me from children’s books.” The other students both laughed and cringed. The monkey team, especially, had a supervising professor so gruff that it was actively uncomfortable to imagine him sitting with them, let alone reading to them.
“That’s not how Rose told it,” Mark said. Alice changed the subject.
Alice knew that some of the most dangerous accidents in the forest involved tree falls, so there wasn’t much excuse for her to be crouching under a tree drowning in vines without paying attention. There was a wolf spider perched in a hollow at the base of the trunk, and it looked almost exactly like Octavion; it was also guarding eggs. Alice had been thinking of Octavion as a ‘he’, but here was an obvious female that could serve as a comparison. She was studying the female spider closely and didn’t hear the vine falling until it had knocked her about the shoulders and thumped her into the tree. She swore and lurched out of the fall zone, unaware of the beetle on the back of her arm until it sank its mandibles into her skin. She swore again, wrapped her hand around the beetle’s body and twisted it until she wrenched the mandibles off the rest of the body. She put the crippled beetle into a collecting tube and promised it that there was a worse fate waiting. She glanced back at her wound: some blood was seeping into her shirt, but the insect’s jaw seemed to be stopping the worst of it. When she got back to the lab, she found Mark back early from his morning jaunt to collect frogs. His field hat was on the table and he was standing a few paces away, frozen in place.
“Mark?” she asked. He jumped and tried to dart back, but he tripped on a stool and fell over. “Shit,” he said. His face was red and he looked away as Alice peered into his hat. A large praying mantis had made itself comfortable and was polishing its arms in that weird way mantises do. Alice swiped it up and immobilized the head. Mark looked horrified.
“No worries, these used to freak me out too,” Alice said. She tried to show it to him, but he turned away. Alice tossed it outside.
“I don’t think I’m made for fieldwork, Alice. I’m already competing with insects for my blood, but now my hat? It’s my hat!” Mark croaked the last work and crumpled on to the stool he had knocked over. Alice pulled up a stool next to him.
“You should have seen me during my first field season,” Alice said. “If Rose hadn’t been there, I’d probably have hated it.”
“At least Rose was there,” Mark said. “Rose really should have come.”
“You get used to it, this is fun, really. The field season is the best part of the year,” Alice said. Mark snorted and dragged the back of his hand across his nose.
“Hey, maybe you could help me with something,” Alice said. She stood and pivoted. “Rose said you’ve had wilderness first aid training.” Unexpectedly, the sight of blood seemed to steady Mark out. He went at once to wash his hands and fetch tweezers and a bandage, and he expertly removed the insect’s mandible.
“You’re better at this than Rose,” Alice said.
“No I’m not,” Mark said in way that betrayed how much he liked to hear it.
“Really, you are. Rose had to sew me up a few times and she sucked at it.” Alice could hear Mark smiling as he dutifully applied antibiotic cream to her wound.
“I’ll get better with the bugs,” he said. He taped some gauze on her arm.
“Of course you will, and I’m around and bugs don’t bother me at all,” Alice said. She remembered the crippled beetle in her bag.
“Thanks,” Mark said. He had recovered to his usual chipper self by lunchtime, and Alice joined him at the station for a cooked lunch and retrieved the beetle afterwards. She brought it to her room.
“Octavion!” Alice often said the spider’s name when she went into her room to warn him that she was coming, even though her presence didn’t seem to faze him at all. She found Octavion resting in his den behind the sink, and he crept lazily out when she came into her bathroom. “I have something for you,” Alice told him, and tipped the crippled beetle onto the floor. Octavion pounced on it, which made Alice jump: she didn’t know Octavion was so springy. He must have been hungry to take advantage of her offering immediately, and Alice wondered if he was exhausting the supply of bugs that her room offered. She made a mental note to bring up the occasional cockroach from the lower floor.
After a nap, Alice joined Mark in the lab for the afternoon and helped him make colorful clay frogs, which was the basis of their field study. They made clay frogs in colorful patterns to test whether or not poison dart frogs had ‘taught’ predators not to eat them, or if predators simply avoided all brightly colored frogs. Over the past two field seasons Alice and Rose had been very successful playing mind games with frog predators, and Alice had a particular knack for painting the frogs just right. She settled in to the lab with a mold and a set of non-toxic acrylic paints. Mark painted clay frogs for a while, and then went to take care of the live frogs they were keeping in the lab to study the chemistry of poison dart frog toxins. Mark had developed a tremendous rapport with the frogs. After three weeks of captivity they came to the front of their tank when he walked by and readily ate food from his hand. They were brightly colored, endearing little creatures that couldn’t hurt anyone unless it tried to eat them. That seemed fair to Alice, and she thought they were beautiful.
“They’re very chivalrous, aren’t they?” Mark said as he scooped out the twigs and dirt and put in fresh substrate. Alice asked him what he meant. “They’re completely honest about their poison—they give full and fair warning.” Alice laughed and agreed, leaving the fake frogs to go look at the living ones.
Mark had developed a tremendous rapport with the frogs. After three weeks of captivity they came to the front of their tank when he walked by and readily ate food from his hand. They were brightly colored, endearing little creatures that couldn’t hurt anyone unless it tried to eat them.
“I wonder if that’s why Rose calls them little gentlemen,” Alice said.
“Yeah, that’s where I got the idea from,” Mark said. He continued to rearrange the tank and Alice helped him tip it forward to even out the fresh dirt. They finished setting it up and Alice noticed a second tank behind the big one. She pulled it to the front and took off the lid.
“What’s in this?” she asked. There was a single young frog, so young a bit of its tadpole tail still remained, with a missing front foot. It cowered in the corner until Mark took it away from Alice. He looked at her, holding the small aquarium against his chest. The frog put its intact front foot on the glass and lifted itself to peer up at Mark.
“I found her injured, I’m just going to keep her until her leg grows back or heals over,” Mark said. “Please don’t tell Rose.” Alice started laughing.
“Well okay, but there is no one in the world who would be less fussed,” Alice said. “Have you ever heard Rose talk about pink-laced skinks? And anyway, Rose loves impromptu little experiments like this. See, watch.” Alice took a spare scrap of cardstock and wrote: Experimental observations related to limb regeneration in an adolescent dendrobatid.
“Experiment, right,” Mark said, his arms relaxing. He fed his injured frog and brought the little aquarium out to the front, next to the big one with all the other frogs, and taped the cardstock to the top of the aquarium.
“My masters advisor was super intense about not getting attached to lab animals,” Mark said. “He was a firm believer in being able to sacrifice as needed.”
“Rose isn’t like that at all,” Alice said. “When we get back to the lab and you have more time to get to know her better, you’ll see. I think you’ll really get along well.”
“You won’t tell her about the praying mantis, will you?” asked Mark. Alice promised she wouldn’t.
A few days later Alice caught a cockroach on one of the dining tables as it tried to edge on her plate. She had to marvel at that—jungle cockroaches lacked the scruples of their urban cousins. She put it in a tube and brought it to Octavion, who fell upon it as soon as it hit the floor. Any lingering doubts Alice and Octavion had about one another were quickly dissolving, and Alice’s practice of bringing bugs that had bothered her to Octavion for deliverance was making the spider tame to the point of friendliness. He sometimes responded to Alice’s presence by unfurling himself from his den, shimmying up the sink, and sitting on the faucet. “Octavion, Octavion,” she sang to him when he did this. The students who lived below wondered what song contained those distinctive lyrics.
Although it took eight weeks, Alice’s third field season adopted a rhythm, albeit an odd one. She was accustomed now to doing fieldwork alone, to living with a giant spider, and to communicating with Rose only by email. The stories she brought back from the forest now belonged only to her, which was perhaps the most difficult thing to adjust to. It was difficult to own her own experiences, which were sometimes so strange that she wondered if they could possibly have happened in real life. She told Mark all about her field days, and he loved to listen but found the reality of it less enticing. Once she described witnessing an all-out war between capuchin and spider monkeys and Mark just looked concerned and anxious. He didn’t like suffering or violence, and while the rainforest promised intrigue and beauty, it often delivered blood as well. Rose had told Alice to take care of the new student, so Alice took that into account and made sure Mark got to stick with the tasks he felt comfortable with. He spent a lot of time in the lab handling the frogs, gently collecting their poison. His wounded frog grew back her foot, and Alice told him to take a photo every day to document its progress. She emailed Rose about it: “Rose- Mark is doing very well with the frogs. He has some cool results for a case study in dendrobatid limb re-growth. I’ve taken over most of the fieldwork, but he’ll do better next season when you come back with us. The data looks good. How’s Danny’s leg? Hope it’s feeling better. Alice.”
Rose responded twenty minutes after Alice messaged her, but Alice couldn’t access it until the next afternoon when the sun was high and the Internet connection wavered to life. “Alice- good news about the main data and the regrowth experiment. Let this be a lesson to you in mentorship: you can’t let Mark stay in the lab just because he’s nervous about the field. Anyway, I may not be able to come back next year. We’ll talk when you get back. Take Mark out with you, insist he come. Danny’s going into surgery again tomorrow, I’ll let you know how he comes out of everything. Best, Rose.”
Alice wasn’t sure what she disliked more, the allegations that she was failing to mentor Mark, or the mysterious implication that Rose might be looking at a long-term hiatus from fieldwork. It was not her job to baby-sit Rose’s students, Alice thought to herself in an annoyed moment. But it wasn’t Rose’s fault that a car accident had shattered her husband’s leg, and Rose loved the field season. Feeling very down, the lowest she had been that field season, Alice went back to the student dormitory. She caught a cricket on the first floor and brought it up for Octavion. She called his name and sat on the lid of her toilet as he came out from his den and scaled the sink. She handed him the insect and heard the faint grating sound of his chewing.
“It’s not the same without Rose,” she told him. He gnawed. “Rose would understand about you. Mark would shit himself.” Alice left Octavion and went to claim her own dinner. She joined the other students and told Mark that he was going to join her in the field the next morning. He agreed without protest, although he clearly wasn’t looking forward to it.
The next day Alice took Mark on an easy circuit, going first to the lookout point along trail 3 that gave them a spectacular view of the sun rising over the river. They collected their clay frogs all morning and ate their field lunches on the banks of a stream. Alice tossed some of the crumbs from her sandwich into a calm pool and little fish darted up to eat them. Mark tried it, and he even managed to catch one of them in his little sandwich bag. It was silvery and red, and they admired it for a minute before releasing it in its school. They took off their shoes and socks and waded a bit, letting the water cool their feet, and as they did a flock of toucans descended into the trees around them and dove down to drink from the stream. It was an uneventful but stunning kind of morning.
The last task on Alice’s agenda was to collect a camera trap, a motion-capture video camera that they set up in view of a particular clay frog to film whatever attacked it. Last season Alice and Rose had gotten a strange result, that frogs painted with purple polka dots on a green background tended to get attacked much more often, and they wanted an idea of what sorts of animals were attacking them. So far Alice had used the camera traps to capture three kinds of lizards on video attacking their clay frogs, including a pink-laced skink: the news put Rose in a good mood for several days. She emailed Alice that it made sitting in the hospital waiting room more bearable.
After their noontime at the stream, she and Mark abandoned silence (and any chance at seeing more wildlife) and chatted their way toward their last field site. As they walked past the intersection of trails 12 and 15, Alice glanced upward and spotted the bright colors of a dendrobatid frog perched on a cup-shaped bromeliad: it was a female laying eggs in the water within, to hatch into tadpoles and grow into frogs fifteen feet off the ground. She pointed it out to Mark and he ripped off his hat and threw it to the ground in a fit of excitement. Development was Mark’s primary interest, and he was desperate to abduct the tadpoles. He wanted to determine the age at which the frogs start making their poison.
“And hell,” he said, “having tadpoles around the lab would just be fun!” Alice agreed, and they stood waiting under the bromeliad’s host tree for an hour and a half until the mother frog left. Alice climbed the tree and had Mark stand below. She sawed through the branch with the knife on her belt and climbed back down in a nervous haze, trying to keep the water in the plant from sloshing. When her feet met the ground Mark leapt into action. He transferred the eggs to their water bottles while Alice ruefully considered the sip she wished she had taken before she scaled the tree. He transferred the eggs perfectly, not a single one was damaged, and held their bottles in his hands and looked at Alice expectantly. The afternoon had worn on, and dark came more quickly under the canopy than it did out in the open.
“Go, I’ll get the last camera trap,” she said. Mark took off down the trail, completely unafraid to be by himself, which was a good sign. Alice hurried to their last site. As she neared the camera, she saw a red light: the camera was filming, so something must be moving. Alice moved in, heard a rustling, stopped a few feet away, and peered down. She was blindsided with a rush of adrenaline when she saw a snake writhing around with its fangs wedged into a clay frog. It was trying to pull away, but it was fast stuck and started banging its head repeatedly against the ground.
A few giggles escaped, but Alice but sobered at once when the snake’s diamond-back pattern triggered something in her brain. That’s a viper, she thought. She saw that the viper’s head was weighed down with the clay frog, and it probably couldn’t hurt her. She crept another few steps forward, grabbed the camera, and whirled around to run. She didn’t stop until she was halfway back to the station. She wiped the sweat off her forehead and started to view the video from the camera trap. She went back to the part where the snake first lunged at the frog and watched it wheel and whirl as it tried to get itself loose. According to her camera, it had been trapped in clay for almost an hour.
God, this is cool, she thought, studying the tiny screen, and as she did her pulse quickened and she already started formulating the story in her head because the viper was a bushmaster. It’s triangular head, coloration, and characteristic pits told her it was the most venomous snake in the new world, trapped here in clay and furiously unhappy about it. She laughed out loud, giddy from all the fight-or-flight hormones and the idea that she had trapped a bushmaster and lived to tell the tale. She stowed the camera in her bag and rushed back to the station, believing for a few minutes that she was the most powerful thing in the forest. She felt stocky with muscle, strong and lithe as a jungle cat. Right as she came to the end of the trail she slashed her belt knife at a vine, two leaves falling silently in the wake of her stroke, and she sheathed her knife and stalked out of the forest.
As she passed the laboratory, she heard the unmistakable sound of the tapir professor’s deep-voiced chuckles. He hefted himself out of the hammock in which he had been laying and said, “Did the leaves look at you funny?”
“No, I saw something amazing,” Alice said. He snickered at her. He and Rose were old friends and Alice knew him pretty well by then, having spent her field seasons with his team, and she brandished the camera trap at him and blurted,
“No! You don’t understand, I saw a bushmaster!” The professor froze in a comically drastic fashion, and Alice used some of the camera’s precious battery to show him the video. This caused an instant ruckus. The herpetology team, which had just arrived the previous week, fawned over it until Alice took it away from them and went to back it up. The tapir professor was all in a tizzy, and by the time Alice had the chance to talk to him through the flurry of herpetologists he had already emailed Rose and the expensive, emergency satellite phone was ringing. Alice picked it up and spent thirty dollars and four minutes assuring Rose that she was fine and Mark hadn’t even been there. After she had calmed some, Rose said,
“I’m just glad it’s okay—it’s good to hear your voice, I need confirmation you’re still alive all the way over there. Email is so weird, and I’m sorry I was short with you about Mark. I would have felt so guilty if you had taken him out with you and he had gotten you in a situation with a bushmaster.” Alice assured Rose again that everything was fine, mentally calculating the price of Rose’s worries.
By the time Alice made it into the lab to see how the tadpoles were doing, the sun had set and it was dark. Mark was hunched over the lab bench in front of a third aquarium, and he didn’t react when Alice came in. “Hey,” she said quietly, and he jerked upright. Just then the lights came on (the generator ran for three hours a night) and Alice saw the pearly eggs on the bottom of a third aquarium. Mark had rigged an air pump to circulate the water and was fiddling with its internal machinery to adjust its power.
“A few of them hatched on the hike back,” Mark said. Alice leaned in and squinted; she could see a pair of bluish transparent tadpoles drifting and swimming around. They were glossy in the overhead lights, like living jewels. The adult frogs in the big aquarium were crowded to the end of the aquarium in a huddle, watching Mark with their noses pressed against the glass.
A week later Alice and Mark saw a deer in the Amazon, an animal not even Alice had seen before. It was a small thing and looked bowlegged until it leapt into the brush like a four-legged dancer. It had been beautiful, and they only saw it because they were several miles from the field station, far enough away that the shyer animals could be surprised. Mark managed to get decent photos and they whooped and high-fived, ruining their chances of seeing any other critters in the process. “This totally beats the herp team’s squirrel,” Mark gloated. Alice agreed, and they managed to talk about it for the entire hike back.
After the long return journey Alice was sticky with sweat and a haven for insects thirsty for bloody or hungry for protein. She and Mark split for their rooms in the student dorm and Alice made for the ladder. “What a day, Octavion,” Alice said as she stripped her field shirt and pants and hung them on a hook so they wouldn’t grow too much mold before she could wash them. “Octavion?” she called. She supposed he was prowling her room and went to look over her mosquito net, but he wasn’t there either. He could be in one of the unfinished rooms hunting a particularly choice bug, but Alice went to check behind her sink to make sure.
Octavion wasn’t in his den, so Alice looked behind her toilet and pulled back her curtains. There, sitting on the windowsill, was a juvenile pink-laced skink with something protruding from its mouth. The thing in the skink’s mouth looked like moldy spaghetti, but Alice could recognize the prickles of Octavion’s hairs. The skink was lethargic; Octavion must have bitten him a few times during the assault. It’s not the skink’s fault, it’s a predator, Octavion’s a predator, and everything has to eat, a logical voice recited in her head. She stepped away, gasping and feeling sick like her whole body wanted to throw up the contents of each individual cell. The poisoned murderer was watching her impassively and something in her mind erupted. The logical voice strangled into silence. Alice yanked her knife from her belt and in one swift stroke cut the lizard well enough in half. It had a second to gape at her before its mouth loosened around Octavion’s leg. There was blood pooling on the windowsill, gleaming red on her knife, staining her sleeves, and she staggered back and realized there was blood on her skin too.
A movement from the corner of her eye caused her head to involuntarily jerk around. Octavion was crawling out from a fold in her shower curtain, but he fumbled and fell. Alice dropped her knife and leapt to catch him. One of his legs was reduced to a writhing stump, and he tried ineffectually to hop off Alice’s hand. She caught him again as the skink flopped weakly forward in the last action of its life, and Alice realized what she had done. Octavion was still, even though he could have bitten her in fright, and she set Octavion on her sink. The grisly evidence of her crime against nature confronted her as Octavion limped slowly toward the faucet. She ignored it for a moment.
“You’ll be okay,” she told him. “You’ve still got seven eighths of your legs.” Alice had collected a fat, iridescent cockroach in a collecting tube for Octavion and she took it out and held it for him. It took him several tries to coordinate himself, but soon he had his front legs locked around it and his mandibles working efficiently. She checked her room for evidence of more skinks, looking under her bed, and combed through the other rooms as well. She finally forced herself to deal with the dead skink, a victim of unnatural affection, by tossing it out the second floor window and into the brush behind the dorms. She scrubbed the blood off the walls as best she could, and when she checked on Octavion again the cockroach had disappeared and Octavion was gingerly making his way down the sink. Alice watched lest he fall again, but he managed it on his own and went to rest in his den.
Sometimes Alice hated nature. She did not know if wolf spiders could regenerate their legs, but she doubted it. She wondered if she should try to put some antibiotic ointment on Octavion’s stump, but she suspected that might stretch their understanding. At least Octavion seemed able to defend himself—his venom was strong enough to almost paralyze a skink, so that was something. Octavion would be fine, Alice promised herself, even if he only had seven legs. That evening she told Mark she was feeling ill and spent the rest of the night checking in on Octavion. He was still and less responsive for a few days, but within a week he was almost back to his old self. He gamely returned to defending Alice’s room from tarantulas and unwanted pests, and started visiting her on her mosquito net earlier in the evening than usual. They would sit together while Alice read before bed and she was occasionally tempted to reach out and touch him, like she would with a cat.
There are so many kinds of loss, and Alice learned of a new one as she packed her bags after four months in the Amazon rainforest. Alice had left lots of places before, houses, university dorms, research placements, and that very field station, but here she was, freshly forlorn. Octavion was interested in all the movement in their room and kept roaming over her bags and inspecting the zippers. She could barely look at him. It was insane, she knew, to regret leaving a spider behind, but it was a certainty that they would never see each other again. She had considered some truly outlandish ideas, including trying to smuggle him back to her university in her backpack. He might not survive all the jostling and x-rays, though, and she could get sent to prison if she was caught, but she still thought about it. She warned the station director about him to make sure no one new would hurt him, but no more research teams were coming. Octavion would have their room to himself, and that was probably the safest place for him. She had told the other students about him and even introduced Octavion to a few of them, and they promised to keep an eye on him.
That was a small comfort, and Alice zipped her bags shut lest Octavion try to become a stowaway. Octavion followed her back to the bathroom as she brushed her teeth and skittered up the sink to splay over the faucet. He balanced in a new way now that he only had seven legs. Alice started to sing his name, but had to stop when the lump in her throat got too big. She couldn’t believe herself. Mark had cried when they released all their frogs earlier that day, and Alice had been faintly embarrassed. How the tables had turned—now she was just glad that no one could see her.
“I know you can’t understand me, but I’ll miss you, as strange as that is,” she told him. It was time for bed; she had to get up well before dawn to make the journey back to town. She got into bed, tucking her mosquito net under her mattress carefully. Within a minute, Octavion was in his usual place right over her head. She rolled onto her side and curled into a ball, sweating in the tropical heat. She wasn’t a sentimental person, and she wasn’t prone to attachments. She had grown out of her greatest one, her hero-worship of Rose, and got along without her just fine. She didn’t need anyone, although she knew she wasn’t meant to be alone. Octavion moved, fluttering her mosquito net a little. In spite of herself, Alice started to cry. The human mind must be a fragile thing to be duped so easily, to grow so attached to a primitive thing that probably was incapable of anything even like love. The best thing he could do for her was not bite her, and though he had done that very reliably, he wouldn’t miss her when she left. He might miss the bugs she brought, but that’s it. Still, Alice was heartbroken when he followed her to the ladder for the last time. She offered him one final cockroach of thanks, and he scurried away to bathroom to eat, like he usually did. She knew him so well.
by Riva Riley
Riva Riley is a zoology PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She is American and was raised southwest of Chicago. Her research pertains to communication in fishes—she studies how fish make friends. Throughout her time in the field and the lab, she has made fishy friendships with all sorts of creatures.