He’d been hunting in the forest’s depths for months, but he’d never known such silence. No monkeys shook the leaves over-head, no birds cried, no insects droned. The only sounds seemed to come from within: the pulse throbbing in his temples and his own labored breathing.
The previous day the young man had hiked what he guessed was about eighteen miles before collapsing into sleep. But those trails hadn’t been nearly as challenging as this one—a muddy ribbon twisting up the forested mountainside, inset with loose boulders of granite and quartz. He was in good shape and just twenty-five years old, but each step took its toll. He fell behind his companions, whose bare feet gripped the slippery rocks better than did his leather boot soles. His blue cotton shirt and brown pants were streaked with mud.
Somewhere along the way—it was hard to tell exactly where it began—the gentlest of whispers broke through the enveloping hush. The higher he climbed, the louder it got: a breathy hiss that grew into a roar. Twisting through the overgrown vegetation, he found the other men standing on a broad, flat shelf of land. A scene like none he’d ever witnessed burst open in front of him: a vast pool of swirling water, fed by a majestic torrent that spilled down the angled slope for what looked like a mile. A mist rose from the tumult, obscuring everything in a gauzy veil: the swaying ferns, the logs slanting across the water, the trees ringing the banks. According to his calculations, they were about five thousand feet above sea level.
He paused to drink from the pool, but his rest was brief. A short distance uphill, one of his companions spotted footprints that didn’t belong to their own party. The feet that had impressed those marks into the mud were bare—but oddly round, with a big toe that seemed to jut away from the other four toes at a severe angle.
When he saw the prints for himself, the hunter felt his heart slam against his rib cage: this was the target he’d traveled so far to pursue, and it finally seemed within his reach.
Following the tracks, the men stumbled into what appeared to be an abandoned tribal village. Years earlier, the land had been cleared for huts that had since collapsed. Stray stalks of sugarcane pushed through the ruins. As the hunter broke off a stalk and sucked the grassy sweetness from its marrow, another of the men observed that some of the plants had recently been ravaged—violently torn up by the roots and mangled into pulp.
They looked at one another and grabbed the rifles they wore strapped across their backs.
More tracks led down a hill. The men carefully crossed a stream on a fallen log, and on the other side of the water they encountered a cluster of enormous granite boulders, some as big as small buildings. The tracks here were even fresher, filled with muddy water that hadn’t had time to settle.
The hunter circled to the right of the boulders, while a few of his companions walked to the left. He emerged from the granite blockade just in time to catch an obstructed view of four dark creatures fleeing rapidly into the dense cover of forest.
The figures disappeared as quickly as they had exploded into view. Running with their heads down and bodies bent forward, the woolly creatures appeared to him, he later noted, “like men running for their lives.”
Just minutes before, he might have sworn that the mountain torrent had been the most awe-inspiring sight he’d witnessed in his young life. But this blurred vision of bodies in motion—gone in the blink of an eye—blew it away.
Chapter 1: Destiny
Gabon, West Africa
(Ten years earlier)
Late in 1846, near the end of the rainy season, a group of men reached the Atlantic coast of Africa after weeks of slogging through the waterlogged interior. They had followed no maps, because none existed for that broad swath of equatorial forest. As far as the outside world was concerned, they had emerged from terra incognita—a pure white void in the atlas of the world.
But these men had been exploring the territory all their lives. They were native African traders, and they regularly made long treks from their inland villages toward the largest coastal settlement in Gabon, drawn to the European merchant ships that occasionally dropped anchor to strike deals. On this day, in addition to shouldering the customary bundles of ebony and ivory, the traders carried something extraordinary: a scavenged totem of beguiling rarity.
The American missionary who lived on the bluff wouldn’t be able to resist its pull.
His name was John Leighton Wilson, a man of towering stature whose quick smile often got lost inside his fleecy white beard. He had come from South Carolina to the coast of equatorial Africa years before to save the souls of men, but a large part of his own soul had been captured by the wonders that surrounded him. He could spend hours marveling over the elaborate nests of driver ants, or measuring pythons, or trying to tame a porcupine scrabbling near the door of his hut. For all his preaching to the locals about the evils of black magic, false idols, and tribal superstitions, he’d always been vulnerable to the charms of the exotic. And when he spotted the tribesmen’s strange curio, he fell under its spell, offering to buy it on the spot.
It was a skull.
At first glance, that calcified mask seemed the product of a peculiarly demented artistry, a grotesquerie of sharp angles and shadowy apertures. When Wilson took it in his hand, it sat heavily, with none of the driftwood airiness of old sun-blanched bones. Its diameter easily exceeded that of a human skull, but there was a passing resemblance, and that’s what gave the skull its power to unnerve.
The jaw alone was colossal, framing a mouthful of teeth that seemed to bare themselves in a sinister smile. A quick count revealed thirty-two teeth, the same number as humans, but four of them boldly hijacked Wilson’s attention: the twinned sets of upper and lower canines, the largest more than two inches long, curving like scimitars. Those fangs appeared worn, but from what he could only imagine.
From the mouth, the facial bones that stretched up toward the eyes sloped back at nearly a forty-five-degree angle, interrupted along the way by a gaping round nasal cavity. From under a menacing ridge of brow, two dark holes stared out where eyes were once socketed. The cranial dome itself was oddly flat, too small in comparison with the rest of the head, as if betraying a brute ignorance that only intensified the promise of danger. The fact that no flesh remained on the skull to provide a more complete picture of the unknown creature’s appearance made it no less intimidating: the absence of detail somehow accentuated its eccentricity, in the same way that the most vivid nightmares need darkness to make themselves seen.
The natives called it a njena.
Wilson, who for years had been compiling the first-ever diction-ary of the local dialect, was unable to translate the term. Whatever the creature was, no words existed for it in English, or in any other language.
Wilson believed in destiny. Everything and everyone had a place in this world—every grain of sand, the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, all that creepeth. No matter how pathetic, desolate, abominable, or forlorn something might have seemed at first, its mere existence meant that it was an indispensable part of a divine plan. And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.
His faith kept him rooted in West Africa, a place that most of the plantation owners he’d grown up with in South Carolina would have dismissed as an uninhabitable wasteland. In 1842, after a decade in Liberia, Wilson had established the first permanent Christian mission in Gabon. Other churches had staked claims all over Africa, but Gabon—straddling the equator, hanging on to the continent’s western edge—remained virtually untouched. European ships had been sailing past the coast for centuries, but the punishing ocean swells and rip currents near the shoreline scared most of them away. The few that risked disembarking never ventured far inland, because the terrain threw all manner of obstacles in front of would-be explorers. Beyond the narrow coastal plain, the land rose into green hills and then into rugged mountain peaks. The clouds that veiled the highlands dumped more than a hundred inches of rain on the lowland forests. The rivers were choked with mangroves. The mosquitoes were murder. The inland tribes were rumored connoisseurs of human flesh.
Wilson loved it. He built a six-room bamboo house on an airy bluff overlooking the estuary of the Gabon River. The place was called Baraka, a derivative of barracoon, the local word for “slave compound,” which is exactly what it had been until recently. Wilson hoped to cleanse the ground of its tainted history by doing the work of God. He believed he was fated to live in that very spot.
His wife, Jane, soon joined him. Together they established a Protestant school for the children of the Mpongwe, the ethnic group that populated the loose string of villages on the coast. He thrust himself into their language and their customs. He liked the natives, respecting their “pliancy of character” and what seemed to him a natural quickness of mind. According to Wilson’s reading of the Bible, these people were the “descendants of Ham,” a son of Noah, and they took a curse with them as they settled in northern Africa after the Great Flood. Whether or not they were cursed, he believed that their continued presence in that harsh landscape proved they were destined to fulfill an important role in history. Wilson tried to get a handle on his thoughts by grabbing a pen and paper:
That this people should have been preserved for so long a period in constantly increasing numbers, and that in the face of the most adverse influences, while other races, who were placed in circumstances much more favorable for the perpetuation of their
nationality, have passed away from the earth or dwindled down to
a mere handful, is one of the mysterious providences that admit of no rational explanation, unless it be that they have been preserved for some important future destiny.
Ever on the lookout for providence, Wilson one day in 1848 spot- ted a small group of Mpongwe tribesmen approaching his hut. They were accompanied by a diminutive figure. He was a young man, a teenager. He looked like a waif who’d washed up on a mud bank somewhere upriver, which, according to the story the boy would tell, wasn’t too far from the truth. He had dumped his canoe, he said, and had staggered along the banks for four days before reaching Baraka. He was weak, hungry, and utterly pathetic, a shipwrecked soul in need of safe harbor.
His name was Paul Du Chaillu, and Wilson welcomed him with open arms. The missionary believed that the boy, like everyone else, had been born with a divine purpose. It was Wilson’s duty to help him discover it.
No one could have recognized it at the time, but when the seventeen-year-old crossed the threshold of that bamboo mission house, he was taking his first step into a new life, abandoning his old one like the canoe he said he’d let drift down current. Inside the house, Paul first heard about the monstrous skull that Wilson had acquired a little more than a year before. And in that moment, two destinies— the boy’s and the beast’s—collided and forever changed course.
Paul said he was French, which made perfect sense. Gabon had been claimed as a colony by France just a few years before, a messy process that Wilson and Jane had experienced firsthand.
The captain of a French merchant vessel wandered ashore one day in 1842, a brandy bottle in hand. He summoned King Glass, the local Mpongwe ruler whom the captain had previously met on a trading stop. After the two men drained the jug of brandy, the merchant unfurled a piece of paper and asked the king to sign it.
When the liquor wore off, the king told Wilson that he’d under- stood the paper was a simple commercial treaty to ensure that trade relations between France and King Glass’s monarchy were secure. But the very next day, a French warship fired a salute over Glass’s town, and a naval commander triumphantly emerged ashore to inform every- one that they were now officially French subjects. He had a signed agreement to prove it. The commander told them they shouldn’t hesitate to call upon the assistance of the French navy if any outsiders, particularly British outsiders, attempted to claim their land.
Wilson was away from the house when the commander arrived, but Jane spoke up.
“It is doubtful whether the territory was really ceded,” she told the commander, “and the mission does not desire or need French protection.”
Her protest, mild but brave, was ignored. The deal had already been done. What’s more, it had been replicated up and down the coast. In addition to obtaining the signature of King Glass, the French merchants had already collected signed treaties from his neighboring rulers. It was official: the French navy had been granted legal permission to construct military or commercial outposts wherever it pleased in Gabon.
From the start, France’s interest was halfhearted, part of an official “foothold policy” designed to put the brakes on the rapid colonial expansion of England, its longtime rival. Early hopes of turning the coastal plain into a profitable agricultural center quickly fizzled, and construction of a coastal fort was abandoned. The half-completed structure was left to rot in the scouring sea spray as a monument to the country’s apathy toward its latest acquisition.
By 1848, the most visible sign of French presence in Gabon was a trading station—the Maison Lamoisse of Le Havre. Paul told Wilson that he had recently arrived in the country from Paris, which was in the throes of a violent revolution, to join his father, who’d moved to Gabon a few years earlier to manage the trading post.
Wilson realized that he in fact had met Paul’s father, who had told him about his son a couple of months earlier. The trader, named Charles-Alexis Du Chaillu, had tried to get his son enrolled in a French Catholic mission school nearby, but the Jesuits had refused him entry. The elder Du Chaillu then asked if the Baraka mission might take the boy on, but Wilson couldn’t give him an immediate answer. So Paul spent his first months on the coast making short trade runs for his father, traveling upriver to collect goods from tribes that lived several miles inland. He’d been fetching a load of ebony and ivory when his canoe had overturned, he said, forcing him to trek back to Wilson’s house.
After their initial meeting, Wilson agreed to take Paul into the school and teach him English, a skill that Charles-Alexis recognized as valuable for an up-and-coming merchant.
Paul leaped at the chance, trading a life that centered on his father’s household for one that revolved around the mission. He became a permanent fixture at the Wilsons’ house, moving into one of the boxy rooms that adjoined the “parlor,” which the couple had ennobled with an old Windsor chair and some gilt-framed pictures. It was as if Paul had traded his real father for a new one, nabbing a mother as a bonus in the bargain.
Jane Wilson liked the boy as much as her husband did, and she welcomed his cheerful, almost elfin, presence in their home. He exuded energy and optimism and was always quick to dish out compliments—which must have delighted Jane, who proudly clung to a southern belle’s sense of style and etiquette. Every day, after she fin- ished tutoring the natives and Paul in their makeshift mission school, she busied herself with the same “delicate little attentions” that she’d observed growing up in Savannah, Georgia: she washed and fixed her hair, putting it up in the style that her husband liked best, and donned a freshly laundered calico dress. For years, she felt as if her husband had been the only person in Gabon to admire her efforts; she never expected the villagers with their square-cut robes to fully appreciate the refinements of a proper Christian lady. But now the unfailingly polite boy was like the doting son she and her husband had never had. Like everyone else, they called him by his first name—a familiarity that Paul would encourage his whole life, among all classes of people, in defiance of the formality of the age.
It wasn’t long before he made his feelings about the Wilsons crystal clear: he stopped addressing them as the Reverend and Mrs. Wilson, and he started calling them “Father” and “Mother.”
In the boy’s eyes, Wilson was a miracle: a white man who commanded universal respect among the coastal tribes without resorting to force or coercion, a stately presence who not only tolerated his equatorial surroundings but actually regarded them with a kind of devotional reverence. From the start, the boy looked up to Wilson, both literally and figuratively: Paul, standing just over five feet tall, was about a foot shorter than Wilson, whose paternal eminence had earned him a public stature on the Gabon River that rivaled King Glass’s for authority.
It wasn’t just a reasonable command of conversational English that Paul was picking up from his newly adopted parents. A mix of constant contact and dazzled admiration made him particularly receptive to Wilson’s all-embracing immersion in the natural world around him.
Thanks to his trading jaunts, which took him farther inland than others dared, Paul in a few months had already acquired a working knowledge of the region’s natural life that far exceeded that of most common traders. But Wilson probably knew more about the flora and fauna of western Africa than anyone alive.
For years, the missionary had been compiling notes for a book that he hoped would chronicle everything worth knowing about western Africa. He’d been the first person ever to study and develop written systems for several of the tribal languages spoken on the coast. He diligently transcribed the local lore, delved into the people’s superstitions, and untangled their systems of tribal governance. He mapped the region’s rivers and plains, faithfully recorded weather patterns, and attempted to classify nearly every plant and animal he stumbled across, no matter how insignificant it might have appeared. Wilson seemed to affix a literal interpretation to Proverbs 6:6: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” Wilson’s entomological observations bore the stamp of an obsessive. He delved into the ants’ turreted mounds and dug down into their radiating burrows. He charted the times of day when white ants seemed most active (night), and he timed how fast a swarm of driver ants could consume a live horse or cow (forty-eight hours). He marveled at the way they built arched bridges from one plant to another using nothing but their own bodies and how they collectively formed “rafts” that allowed them to cross streams en masse. These weren’t tedious data entries documented with the duty-bound dispassion of a stenographer; they were celebratory appreciations of the diversity of life.
His enthusiasm proved contagious. Paul—whether the tendency was latent in him or planted there by Wilson—blossomed into a keen- eyed chronicler of the inexhaustible wonders that God had created for man. He was particularly fond of the fantastical stories the missionary could tell about the region’s more exotic fauna, like the boa constrictor that one day a few years earlier had grabbed one of the Mpongwe’s pet dogs. The snake, about halfway through with the process of swallowing the dog whole, had coated the poor mutt’s fur from the head down with slimy saliva before Wilson and a couple of tribesmen wrestled it away from the serpent.
“The dog experienced no injury,” Wilson said, “but it was several weeks before the varnishing he had got could be removed.”
Of all the stories Wilson told, however, none fascinated the boy more than the story of the njena. The creature was shrouded in obscurity, spoken of by the locals as if it were a mythical monster, not a real animal. The njena was a mystery just waiting to be solved.