We are walking through a forest where rain falls on the broad acacia leaves and is pooling near the mud and the roots that catch our ankles. The air snatches at my neck. I come over a hill, not too far from the front desk that has maps of ranges and messages on the walls that begin with help: “Help the Tarsiers,” “Help the environment,” “Help the Philippines.”
The man who was speaking on our bus told us the park is free, but we should buy something if we feel we should.
“The people who work here make no money,” he said. He was staring out the window when he mentioned this, as markets and mangroves passed by.
When I see the first tarsier, it is asleep on a tree branch, its mouse tail twisted around the stem of a leaf, rumpled fur wet in the downpour. I have to hurry after a cursory glance because there is a bigger group behind ours, urging us on, disappointment already in their faces and footsteps.
I follow our guide, winding around a corkscrew path and in pockets of pea-green leaves the size of quarters. The second tarsier is shaded and dry. The primate opens its eyes, swivels its head 190 degrees. They are nocturnal, but a dozen of us are taking pictures and crunching leaves. We’re loudly making plans for the conference back at the hotel.
We march to the third tarsier, high up in a palm tree. Our young guide, a man with brutal side chops and a Chicago Cubs cap, points with a piece of bamboo.
“You see,” he says. “They like high ground.”
It looks comforting to be up there in the shade of the palm leaves from rain and sun, and just out of earshot of our cameras. Our shutters click like eyelids fluttering. This tarsier doesn’t wake.
Somehow it hits us all at once: the lack of sleep from travel on our fellowship, the jet-lag, the hunger for lunch. We are on a writing vacation yet we move on heads down, feet shuffling as if we’re bearing a load.
We hear from our guide that there are only ten tarsiers in this park, and only about 200 in the wild around this island where they are indigenous. They are small, narrow boned, easy to break. Visitors sometimes want the apple-sized primates as pets. Holding one could shatter it.
“You may think the tarsiers are cute,” the guide says, “but they are not your babies.”
Elsewhere on the island there is what the guide calls “concentration camps,” laboratories where tarsiers are kept in pens and taken out, put on people’s shoulders. Each tarsier lasts about a year, he says, in that sparkling pet shop, and so new ones are taken from the wild to fill the cages.
At our fourth and last view, I bend down and my face gets as close to him as it is to my own hand later when I take out my wallet and hold it up to count the bills. I see the tarsier folded into a shape like a fist, his wet fur smooth, fleshy. His owl head buried into his chest. He is breathing — a slight ripple of peach fuzz rising up and down, about one breath per long second. His ears branch off in a Y, and his tail hanging down like what should carry a weight for a ticking clock.
A little quake echoes in my stomach. A sleeping heart, I think. A pumping fist (it’s about the size of my heart), beating, breathing, sending blood through the forest and island.
I come back into the gift store where there is a spotted dog walking around hungry and a glass case selling watches, key chains, sunglasses, small bags, T-shirts, cokes, and postcards of wide-eyed tarsiers.
After we pay for what we want, we drive away, down a dirt road, my arm on the window sill as another bus passes us on the way in. All I can see out the window, is green.
A native Texan, Clinton Crockett Peters once owned a gun but never fired it, which is a metaphor. He has an MFA in pretension from the University of Iowa. He is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of North Texas, which has taken him down a peg. He has work published in various diaries and tear-stained letters, and also in The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review, The Drunken Odyssey, and American Literary Review. He’s recently learned to embrace the olive.
Nothing much happens in this story, and so much does. I keep coming back to it, admiring it like a sculpture I have to walk around and ponder and absorb. I dreamed of tarsiers last night, that’s how much it has gotten under my skin. If I was asked to explain why it draws me so strongly, I wouldn’t know what to say. But it does draw me, and with good reason. I just can’t verbalize what that reason is. Of course the strong, lyrical narrative has something to do with it, but it speaks to something deeper. Great stuff.