You are so beautiful, he said. He was leaning forward with his elbows on the table so he could look at her. You, he said, are proof that nature is cruel. So beautiful, and so untouchable. She was proof of something that had never occurred to him before, that in nature, beauty was a warning. It was never for its own sake, and it wasn’t always for the sake of attraction. Sometimes it was to frighten and repel. Perfect symmetry and vibrant colors, so highly prized by Mother Nature, could at times be like the scream of an alley cat, a vicious admonition. Aposematism, they called it, when an animal’s appearance was a warning of its toxicity.
Columbia. If you go, she had said, I won’t wait for you. But he had to go. Once he decided, he knew it was intractable. For a long while he had felt that the world was too big and that he was lost in it. He had to chose a path in it, a place in it. Columbia was that place: the whole world finally narrowed down to a single country. A whole year in the rain forest, with amazing creatures and smart people who had specialized in something important and interesting. Maybe they could help him specialize in something too. It felt right, in the way that everyone always hopes an opportunity will feel right. But he had never imagined, no matter what direction he decided to go in, that he would have to go it alone.
It was there, in the Cauca Valley, absolutely dizzy with heartbreak and also with amazement and insect bites, that he saw her. She was sleek and nimble, golden yellow with black eyes, more eyes than anything else in that head of hers, and she was looking at him.
Her name was Phyllobates terribilis, the golden poison frog. The most poisonous frog in the world
Do not, said the guide, touch her, under any circumstances. And right as he was backing up, admitting defeat, accepting his place, the guide lunged forward and caught her with bare hands. He watched in amazement as she was put in a little box. One of the most lethal creatures on earth, in a box, suddenly innocuous. They took her back to the laboratory, to admire her. He had found his specialty.
Look at you, he said, leaning towards the terrarium they had transferred her to. There were some wood chips and ants, and a little log, hollowed out on the bottom where she was crouched. They say you could kill ten men. His chin on the table. How many men did you kill, before I met you?
They still wouldn’t let him touch her. Only the specialists could do that. But what he did know was that she wasn’t innately toxic. She couldn’t make poison on her own. She built it out of her food. She manufactured toxic alkaloids from ants and mites. And now that she was under his care, he could feed her things that would make her less dangerous. And eventually, if he was patient, he would be able to touch her.