The Great Ape
The Great Ape at Home
The Great Ape lumbered through the four rooms of the apartment, halting in the living room in the course of one of his many circuits of his dwelling. He climbed on the sofa, his hind feet sinking into the cushions, and briefly beat his chest. Through the rear windows overlooking the neighboring backyards and, beyond, the elevated subway tracks and the large KENTILE FLOORS sign, he could discern the onset of evening, as the sun sank out of view behind the the housetops. He swung himself off the sofa and took his place by one of the windows, nibbling on the fronds of a houseplant. Intently, he watched the corner, near the subway entrance, for the Beautiful Dr. Silver, but soon the Man With the Pigeons appeared in his yard directly across the way and, whistling and waving a stick, began to direct the birds on their twilight flight. Distracted, the Great Ape’s eyes followed the birds and his head followed the movement of his eyes. His neck stiffened and he pounded at it with the heel of his hand. Abruptly, he threw the houseplant in its planter to the floor. Soil and shards of the pot were scattered before the window and under a credenza. The plant lay on its side, its dirty roots exposed, bedraggled. The Great Ape shrieked. Beat his chest for a moment. Repaired to the kitchen for a handful of lettuce.
The Beautiful Dr. Silver, who had taken the Great Ape into captivity, had left when the sun was angling through the front windows. She had stroked his head and picked insects out of his fur, reassuring him that she would return shortly after attending a yoga class later that morning, when the sticks on the face of the clock—here she had gestured at the instrument—stood together. The Great Ape had spent the morning patiently working at his desk, pounding the keys of his computer with his great hairy fingers. He’d made himself a lunch of banana and green stick. While the sun was highest in the sky, he had napped, seeking the shade of the bedroom. He’d awoken and sat crosslegged on the bed with a magazine, examining photographs, tearing out each page when finished, eating some of them. He had tracked, killed, and eaten a fly.
When the sticks on the face of the clock were at a sadly crooked angle, like a jointed branch, he put on the hat with words and the big front and lurched out the door, barreling sideways down the staircase and out onto the street. His hairy hands gripped the wrought iron fences fronting the buildings on his block. He wanted to climb to the rooftops but remembered: No! NO! That was one rule.
On the big street he pushed through the door of a bar. The Great Ape enjoyed the smell of a bar. The people inside grew quiet. A tall man with a nose was in his way. He was not the Tall Man With the Nose, but the sight of him aroused the Great Ape nevertheless. He stood before the tall man, beating his chest and roaring. Finally, the tall man with a nose left. The Great Ape sat on the bar and operated the taps with his prehensile feet until the barmaid came over. The barmaid found a big plastic cup to hold beneath the tap with the circley picture, his usual. She filled it for him. The Great Ape considered gripping her about the waist and swinging off into the night with her but decided against it. Only one time had he done that. This was when the Beautiful Dr. Silver had told him a lie about the Tall Man With the Nose. So he had ridden in the yellow car with the Loud Girl and gone to a little house that had a bed and a toilet room. That’s it. The Loud Girl scared him. She smelled powder with a straw and then liked to hit herself in the face with his thing. He didn’t want to do that again. Instead, he drank three more cupfuls. Then he paid, pulling money out of his pants pocket: one hair man, one face hair man, one scared hair man. He tried to give her the one that looked like the Man With the Nose, because he didn’t want it in his pocket anymore, but the barmaid wouldn’t let him. The Great Ape pounded on the bar with his hairy fists in frustration, then left.
The sky was dark now. The Great Ape moved through the street, watching for leopards, crocodiles, taxis, other predators. He turned into his block and automatically looked up at the windows of the apartment: still dark. When he climbed the stairs and hammered open the door he saw that the sticks on the clock-face were at the corner-angle, sharp like a box of tasty crackers. The Great Ape made a slow, dispirited tour of the four rooms. The Beautiful Dr. Silver was not there. He jumped on the table and beat his chest, yelling. Thumping came from the strange-eye woman in the branches above. Bam, bam on the floor. He thought about tearing her head off and throwing it from the roof, but he remembered he couldn’t. That was one rule. Instead, he curled into a ball and fell asleep beneath the low table in front of the couch. He remained there all night.
The Great Ape
Remembering the Jungle
Before the Beautiful Dr. Silver had come, the Great Ape lived with a she-ape and their two babies. All day the Great Ape would bang on the keys of his computer. Then he would find his babies. At nightfall the she-ape returned to them. When all four of them were there the Great Ape could stop feeling worried. He would count on his hairy fingers: one, two, three, and then, remembering himself, four!, and he knew that everything would be all right for another night. Days without number went by. The she-ape went out for fruit, leaves, etc. The babies grew. The Great Ape was happy among the other apes. He hammered on the keys of his computer and then would come on out to check out the other apes. They would smell each other and sometimes knock each other around in a friendly way. Later he and the she-ape would lie there and pick insects off each other and grunt and shriek about the other apes. They had their complaints, to be sure. But they were among their own kind.
Then the Beautiful Dr. Silver had appeared. She asked him if he wished to be interviewed for a scientific article she was writing. She was interested in the reproductive patterns of various species including, as it turned out, great apes. The Great Ape was astonished by this turn of events. As far as he knew, Dr. Silver had always quietly sat in the brush with her notebook and camera, simply part of the colorful and complicated background of the jungle. Then, suddenly, it was as if all he could see was the Beautiful Dr. Silver! He thought, sometimes, about that interview. What could have affected him? Had she shot him with a dart? Fed him poisoned fruit? Had she struck him on the head with a rock? Had she dragged him into the river and held him there until he had breathed in water? Had she bitten through his thick coat of fur and pierced his skin and caused him to bleed the very nectar of his heart? Whatever it was she’d done, the effect was the same: after two months of interviews, which sometimes took place as often as three afternoons per week, he packed his computer in his old banana bag and swung out of his home, leaving the she-ape and his two babies behind.
The Great Ape
and the Beautiful Dr. Silver
This was an unprecedented act on the part of the Great Ape. The Beautiful Dr. Silver had stirred and aroused him. He believed that to be apart from her was to suffer terribly, as if from illness. He suffered whenever he was not being interviewed by the Beautiful Dr. Silver and from the extremity of this feeling he concluded that he would stop suffering it if he could arrange to be with her at all times. It was a mighty effort. There was his own resistance, of course. The Great Ape was a creature of habit. Nothing pleased him more than to climb from his own tree each morning and to climb into it again each night. Nothing was more satisfying than to conclude each day having completed the tasks and chores that he and the she-ape had determined to be his and theirs together. Nothing was more integral to his sense of being whole and cohesive than to be able to make that count—one, two, three, four!—each night and determine that he was with all of them, his very own apes. Nothing, that is, until he began to suffer terribly in between the interviews with the Beautiful Dr. Silver. But despite having alleviated this suffering, the Great Ape still felt the wound (and it was a great wound) of tearing himself from his home and family, from the familiarity of his routine, from the steady imperceptible comforts of his undisturbed reputation.
Moreover, the she-ape did not yield passively to the change the Great Ape abruptly put into effect. The she-ape beat her chest. She seized the babies and held them close to her, or swung them onto her back and carried them high into the trees, away from the Great Ape. She insisted on the Great Ape’s accompanying her each week to the dwelling of a wise ape who would attempt to counsel the Great Ape and persuade him of the error of his ways. On the occasions when the Great Ape visited his former tree with bananas and roots for the babies, she cornered him and badgered him, questioned his plans, impugned the character of the Beautiful Dr. Silver, even struck him once in her frustration and anger.
Then, the Beautiful Dr. Silver made a public announcement. She requested that the Great Ape be present at her side. She announced that a great scientific triumph was about to come to pass; that she herself was now carrying within her womb the Great Ape’s own love child; that primate research would no longer advance step by stumbling step but would take a great leap, as it were, into the very treetops of knowledge!
The Great Ape Betrayed
This development, though it certainly caused its share of grunting, chest-beating, nervously erratic self-grooming, and so forth, stilled debate for a while. The she-ape’s efforts diminished. The Great Ape and the Beautiful Dr. Silver cleaved unto each other and prepared not only for their great experiment to come to fruition in the fullness of time, but for their lives to join fully, happily, legitimately. Then the Tall Man With the Nose met with the Beautiful Dr. Silver and informed her that his own wise advisor had insisted that the Beautiful Dr. Silver submit to a test to prove beyond a glimmer of a doubt that the rapidly evolving fetus was, in fact, the Great Ape’s. It was for science! The Great Ape and the Beautiful Dr. Silver agreed that science demanded certainty and certainty called for rigor. The Great Ape provided, for the use of the wise advisor, a banana skin that had traces of his spittle. The Beautiful Dr. Silver, for her part, assured the Great Ape that the test was a matter of ceremony; that it was a tradition called upon in the place of humans to settle matters, and to bring to a formal conclusion things that had otherwise all but ended. There was no chance that the infant belonged to anyone other than the Great Ape.
But one afternoon the mail arrived and with it a notice from a facility far from the Great Ape’s accustomed habitat, a squat and angular facility with bright corridors and antiseptic laboratories where individuals in white coats plied their craft disinterestedly and without bias, seeking scientific truth. And, indeed, no malice, no agenda, no pursuit other than that of categorical verification motivated them to determine that the genetic markers residually remaining on the banana peel did not match those of the alleles located at various points on the fetal chromosomes.
The Great Ape Alone
It was then that things began to change for the worse. Until that point, the Great Ape and the Beautiful Dr. Silver had weathered this difficult period together—offering one another both support and hope under trying circumstances—but the Beautiful Dr. Silver abruptly evinced a yearning to reverse the process they had begun. While she said nothing aloud about this, she unmistakably began to withdraw, disappearing for unaccountable hours, becoming secretive. The Great Ape indulged in self-clasping, coprophagic, and self-injurious behaviors, in addition to becoming impatient! And smashing things with his hairy hands, stomping on them with his hairy feet! The she-ape resumed, with an evidently strengthened and renewed feeling of moral impunity, issuing mighty (and now somewhat persuasive) recriminations against the human interloper who had undone her nest and endangered the welfare of her young. Her shrieks could be heard for more than three miles; the phenomenal sight of flying fruit could be seen above the canopy of the jungle. Meanwhile, other great apes alternated between challenging the Great Ape with displays of aggression and subjecting him to a process of ostracism, a process that the Great Ape himself scarcely noticed, having withdrawn into the gloom of his own thoughts. The Beautiful Dr. Silver, for her part, would not be drawn out regarding her own thinking on the subject of the crisis, except to say that in the course of some future accounting it apparently would weigh in his favor if he would leave her alone: not question her, not demand things of her, not insist upon either her commitment to, or his own unconditional release from, this experimental entanglement.
The Great Ape Loses Everything
The Great Ape awakened when the telephone rang and crawled out from under the coffee table, ignoring his stiffness and headache: it had to be the Beautiful Dr. Silver. And so it was. She informed the Great Ape that she had told him a lie: she had not gone to a yoga class, but to an undisclosed location, where she would, for as long as it took, try to come to terms with things, try to be at peace with herself. “Do you want to sit down?” she asked. As the Great Ape considered his answer, he thought he could hear a man’s voice—the voice of the Tall Man With the Nose!—in the background. He asked if there was someone with her. The Beautiful Dr. Silver denied that she was anything but totally and completely alone! And then added that this sort of accusation was exactly what she’d been talking about. Now. Would he be a good boy? Would the Great Ape be a good boy and wait right there? Yes. He had been a good boy and he would continue to be. In the calculus of his love, his helpless dependence on her affections, the Great Ape saw no alternative but to submit to the Beautiful Dr. Silver’s conditions, and so—impatiently or not—he waited; he ignored evidence that the time that the Beautiful Dr. Silver had insisted upon having to herself, to spend alone in scientific contemplation of the situation, was not, in fact, spent alone; he suppressed his feelings of resentment toward the trespasser blooming inside of her, his desire to see it destroyed. Even as the Beautiful Dr. Silver hedged her bets, spread her risk, groomed an array of alternatives, the Great Ape invested fully and faithfully in an unknown future, a future that by his very nature he was incapable of conceiving even abstractly, denying himself the fellowship of his kind and his family, and grooming only—and with increasing compulsiveness—himself.
It was at the end of another long and lonely weekend that the Great Ape received a telephone call: the Beautiful Dr. Silver had delivered a male child, in perfect health, weighing slightly over six pounds. The news was conveyed by a friend of the Beautiful Dr. Silver’s, who had been present at the birth. Although the Great Ape had been hoping against hope, the child was, in fact, completely hairless and in all other respects consistent in appearance with other members of its species. The only DNA it shared with the Great Ape was that common to all primates. As for the Beautiful Dr. Silver, she would be remaining, for the time being, at the undisclosed location where she had chosen to make her own nest. There was silence on both ends of the line, as the Great Ape took all this information in. Then the Beautiful Dr. Silver’s friend could be heard taking a deep breath before she asked him to confirm his awareness that the Tall Man With the Nose had been present at the delivery and that he would be remaining with mother and child. The Great Ape ended the call. How poorly his gorilla brain had served him! How stupid it had turned out to be, to follow his instincts! The wise ape who had counseled him and the she-ape had warned him, as nonjudgmentally as possible, that apes and humans could not coexist, because humans were the incarnation of duplicity. It was in their nature, the wise ape had said. Humans were used to it. Apes were not. The wise ape had shrugged, bared his teeth, and then charged at the unhappy couple—the signal that the weekly session was at an end.
If only the Great Ape had listened! Now he had two choices. He could return to the she-ape, shamed and defeated, and face a vastly reduced role in the community and commensurately diminished status even as he pined helplessly for the Beautiful Dr. Silver, or he could continue to be a good boy and wait, wait to have the impossible scenario and its now-predictable denouement thrust upon him.
There was a third option, though. The Great Ape swung himself out the door and up the stairwell, past the strange-eye’s nest in the building’s upper branches, to the very top, where he opened the creaking door leading out to the roof. The night was beautiful, a crisp breeze ruffled his fur. A chaos of scents—garbage, dog feces, chicken paprikash, Old Spice cologne, ovulating vaginas, formaldehyde, marijuana buds, bourbon whiskey, bacon, tater tots, menstrual blood, melted cheese, cat food, rotting produce, beer, insecticide, pigeon feed, cigar smoke, poster paints, dirty diapers, potting soil, and wood smoke—was carried to him, both a valediction and a too-late argument for life. He mounted the parapet wall and stood there for a moment, gazing ruefully out at the glistening wilderness in which he’d exiled himself. Then, just before taking a deep breath and looking down, he lifted his fists to his chest.
Chasto chasto. Chup chup chup. I would like to place an objection with the exactitude of this history. In its obstinate deformation of a psychic and social life of the large monkeys it represents a rough caricature. Allow me to specify certain facts concerning the lifes of grand simians for the reconstruction of your readers.
For a instance, vocables. Within the dense plant, am no fewer than twenty-five distinct soundings, these are including: the way that destroys (vork), the way that feeds (zvuch), the scraping of work to be done (chayusch), the predation of large cat (mngao), and the incipience or continuation of argumentation (chasto-chup), among the other. Chasto. Chup chup. Also, the import of collegiality am in shameless disregard, yet the large monkey is a community monkey. The bonds of them is maintained and hair is also. Chup. Free assistance is lended with dirtyness and for the parasites. The quiescent period of noon amounts to an important moment to condition reinforcement in the group. Chasto chasto.
But it am the social behaves of them that are distortioned here beyond recognizability. Chup. I.g., Belligerency in the stable position am rare. Chup. True, sometimes between contending group, a fight to dying between dominating mans, engaging sometimes their canines deeply using to cause the yawning wounds (Fossey, Bingo, and Eeek). But the hurtling pugnacious stampede, singularly a gorilla thing, am in place to prevent mayhems. Chasto! Chasto chasto! Here am the complete succession in the nine stages of it: (1) the hooting slow-fast; (2) figurative dining; (3) bipedal levitation; (4) throwing the vegetables; (5) the punishment of the chest with bowl-formed hands; (6) the shovel of one leg in the air; (7) fast lateral walk; (8) to strike and rend vegetables; and (9) the wallop of the earth with the palms to finish the ritual (Esdoorn, Hoff, Señor Chiquitas). Chasto. Chup chup chup.
But is most important the gorilla keep strong company and the groups am bound by the long term obligations between mans and the ripe womans of them. Chup. Chup chup. Chasto. Chup. Under the normal, womans are prone to the dominating silverback for the life (Fossey, OokOok, et al). True, the majority of mans (and approximately 60% womans) leave the group of their anniversary. This is not scarce occurring, no. It is the normal. (Lindsley, Sorin, and AaAaaArgghha). Chup. Chup. Chastochasto.
The dominating silverback of course provides arbitrating of the conflicts and protects of the exterior threats. Chasto chasto chasto. It is of the middle of attention during the hiatus of sleep. It is apprenticing the younger. Most decisive, and make note well, it take on abandoned progeny. Chup. Chup chup. Not discard it. Chasto chasto chasto.
Perhaps for more, the great monkeys, whereas they are in the occasional behaviors of mild self-harm, do not kill themselfs. Whether in the savage situation or imprisonment amongst homo sapien peoples, practitioning of self killing is disowned.
Chastochasto. Chup chup chup.
Thaddeus B’Ngo, Ph.D., D.V.M.
* Notwithstanding the objections to my work put forth by Dr. Bingo (while he prefers the spelling “B’Ngo,” I have, for ease of reference, retained the one “imposed” upon him, as he characterizes it, by the “hierarchical orthography” favored by editors of Western journals), and my publisher’s attorney’s craven submission to his insistence that his rebuttal be appended to my story, I wish to stress, as I have consistently throughout the course of this episode, that the story, with its fantastic, allegorical, and (it should go without saying) fictional aspects, is not intended to represent or comment with any accuracy upon the condition or behavior of captive primates or those acclimated to constant contact with human beings.
It is unfortunate that a noted scholar like Dr. Bingo chose to first voice his objections in so disturbing and highly unorthodox a manner, entering my sixth-story apartment through a window while I worked at my desk. With a rashness for which he later offered a wholly inadequate apology, he destroyed the manuscript of my story, the computer on which its final draft had been stored, as well as personal belongings and other items—upholstered furniture, in particular—around my apartment. Additionally, he made physical threats against my own safety and that of my partner, Nicole Silver, and stepson, Jacob Nase.
In subsequently reconstructing this story from memory, I have doubtless been forced to sacrifice some of its original integrity. This is an unfortunate loss both to me and to those who appreciate superb literary fiction. Dr. Bingo’s persistent and disingenuous disclaimers in the aftermath of his violent acts (e.g., “Hey, I’m not a gorilla, I’m just a chimpanzee.”) do nothing to mitigate this loss, nor do they ameliorate the aggressive hostility of his attack. Nor do they remedy the post-traumatic stress I have suffered since simultaneously experiencing, in effect, an unwarranted attack on my professional integrity by a respected scientist and a physical attack by a wild animal.
In my defense, if a defense is necessary, I can say only that cross-species social congress is a mainstay of fiction—including, I might add, that which derives from indigenous storytelling traditions still extant throughout Dr. Bingo’s native Africa—and that human authors have always taken, and been granted, liberties in such cases. One hopes that the accelerated intelligence of Dr. Bingo and his colleagues, applied so efficaciously to scientific and zoological pursuits, can adapt itself to the nuances and subtleties of the great humanistic and artistic traditions in which I feel that I play a small, but proud, role.
Brooklyn, New York
1. This endnote originally appeared, in slightly different form, as a letter in both the New York Review of Books and the American Journal of Primatology.
CHRISTOPHER SORRENTINO’s recent work has appeared in Tin House, Conjunctions, and Fence.