We were hunted, which is why all of us are afraid some of the time and some of us are afraid all of the time
Our parasites and mutualists influenced our bodies. It is the predators, though, that messed with our minds. We come from a long line of prey; we have been eaten since we were fish. For most of our history, we were more like the pronghorn than the cheetah, more likely to flee than to chase. So it is that time and natural selection had, until very recently, favored the wary over the brave. You can experience your body's wariness to the threat of a predator when someone jumps out at you from a dark hiding spot. You can feel this past when you watch a scary movie or even by reading about someone else's scary experience, for example the day in 1907 when a girl in India named Bakhul and her girlfriends went to gather the leaves of walnut trees to feed to the cows. Bakhul had climbed high into the branches to reach the tenderest shoots, the cows' favorites.
On that day, she was the first to finish gathering and to start down the tree. As she did, she felt a tug on one of her small feet. Was it one of her girlfriends? No, it was firmer, less playful. A tiger stood at the base of the tree. It looked up at her with big eyes and pawed again with its claws extended. It pulled her as if she were a lamb. She screamed and held on, but only for a moment. Her leaves fell around the tree, as did the beads of her small blue necklace. The tiger carried her into the woods. She screamed. She was terrified, but still alive.
When they were told about the tiger, Bakhul's mother and father were despondent beyond words. One town over, a woman had seen her friend taken by this same tiger and it had left her mute, in shock. Bakhul's parents too seemed unable to speak. The wife stirred the pot of their food. The husband sat, unhinged. The door of his life had swung open and it could not be put back. Somewhere at the edge of town or in the quiet between houses, the tiger was walking. Bakhul might still be alive, but no one chanced searching for her, not yet. The families shook and waited inside their houses for whatever might come. Lightning strikes the same spot only once, but tigers can strike repeatedly. This tiger had already killed more than 200 people in Nepal before armed guards chased her across the border. Once in India, she had killed another 237. Now it was in this town that she would do whatever she did next. Given her history, she would almost undoubtedly eat someone else. If not Bakhul, then who?
In this story, one wants to yell at Bakhul's family to look for her. "Search her out!" "Be brave!" No one would have listened. The town was shuttered in fear. Doors stayed closed. Children peed into cans and poured them out the windows. Adults too searched for their own vessels or crouched just outside the door. This society had turned inward and gone rancid with fear and excrement. No one wanted to leave their houses, even as food began to run low and the crops rotted on their stems. Even baboons, stronger, faster, and better defended than humans, hang close to their kin when predators are near. They sit back-to-back looking out and groom each other, gently touching each other's heads and backs, just as it was in this village, people tending to each other with equal parts of tenderness and alarm.
As the villagers waited, they had time to recount other stories they had heard about this tiger and when those stories were exhausted, about other tigers. One town away, in the village of Champawat, a group of men was walking along a path near the village when they heard screaming. Then they saw a tiger coming toward them, and in its mouth, a naked woman, her long hair dragging as she cried for help. In that story too, the men had been too scared to act and so the tiger, carrying the woman, continued on its way. There were dozens more stories. Most ended fatally, but every so often the person was saved, and so they hoped for Bakhul. They hoped for her to stagger back into town, hoped because they were all, each and every one, too terrified to act.
Excerpted from The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn. Copyright © 2011 by Rob Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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