Today, I told him, I stood on deck and watched a storm rumble grandly towards us across the waves. The lengths of black cloud expanded, banner-like, until they filled the sky, while the grey rain beneath them came rushing like a torrent of hornets down into the sea. The whole of this foreign world went inexorably dark as the storm opened its jaws and bit round us.
You see, I explained, somewhat self-consciously, we aboard the Heart of Gold for the most part are not experienced sailors. On the outbound journey there were only four passengers: myself, mostly confined to my cabin for the first few weeks, splayed as I was upon the relentless rack of seasickness; my assistant, a forthright Malay boy who speaks English very poorly (his name is quite unpronounceable, but he has always seemed content to be addressed as Joseph); a gentleman known as Professor R., who hailed from Oxford; and Professor R.’s companion, a lanky undergraduate whose nose had peeled to a burnt rawness akin to that of a ripened tomato before we even reached the Mediterranean. Having deposited Professor R. and his boy at their destination in the Far East, we have gained a new passenger for the return journey: a thoroughly discomfiting individual by the name of Williamson, tall and tanned and uncouth, who spends his days leering wetly at the Cook’s boy and appears to hold some sort of a position in trade. The various members of the crew have, I suppose, bonded to some extent with Joseph and myself during the outbound voyage, and none of us are inclined to warm to this foreign body suddenly inserted in our midst.
I was without any form of diary on the outbound voyage, my own having gone overboard and perished barely a mile out from Liverpool. The journal in which I write now was taken from among a dead man’s papers. The pages are on one side covered with jotted notes, many of them illegible, all of them in German, and written in a bewildering variety of materials which seems to range from charcoal to chicken blood. On the reverse sides, the pages are blank, and now slowly filling with my vague attempts at cogitation. I find that in these blazing foreign seas my mind too often flits from thought to thought, with little room for analysis, and little form or structure around which to anchor my words. At times I fear I am feverish. In his cage in the ship’s bowels my prize rocks and groans restlessly, weakened by the lurching of the sea.
According to the natives (so reports the Second Mate with a sneer), these orange apes are capable of speech but prefer to remain silent, lest their human neighbours attempt to set them to work. ‘Ignorant bunch of brown bastards,’ was the Second Mate’s snorted verdict. But I thought it rather a wise superstition.
On our twenty-third day in Sumatra, at long last, we acquired him: my prize, my bounty, my beautiful flesh-and-blood research subject. He came to us shrieking and jabbering in a wooden-barred cage. He put me in mind of a grossly out-sized songbird. His cage was carried upon the shoulders of five natives, all grinning, all gleaming with sweat. The ape had put up a splendid fight upon capture, my boy Joseph translated, after consulting the natives. Joseph has managed to gain a (likely poor) working knowledge of the native language, in addition to the hundreds of other smatterings of foreign tongues he has picked up on his peregrinations.
‘But it is live?’ I questioned him eagerly. ‘It is unharmed, and healthy?’
Joseph performed his characteristic eye-roll. He and the natives conferred, with much hand-gesturing and exaggerated pointing of fingers. ‘He health,’ Joseph then announced proudly. ‘He is health and perfect for purpose of science.’
‘My Pongo,’ I said wonderingly, moving closer and peering in at the frantic bundle of limbs, still screeching its terror to the slatted sky. ‘My very own Sumatran Pongo.’
My ecstasy upon first being left alone with him was difficult to quantify. There was of course a sense of arrival – a notion of the ascending years of research and frantic fund-raising which had led to this moment; but beyond that, there was purely a simple, primal joy. I stood in the dusty, damp-chilled storage vault below-decks and felt I had returned home after a very long day in the sun. This matted bundle of limbs, wrapped in on itself like a frightened cat, emitting a low, constant moan of horror at the loss of its jungle, represented the closest I had felt in a long time to something like contentment.
I introduced myself to him, formally, as Dr Potts of the Royal Society. I even held out my hand. My sun-browned fingers fanned the musty air and looked feeble as wax tapers before the twitching bulk of the ape. He did not look up nor acknowledge me.
Over the next few weeks I restricted the others’ access to him. Everyone wanted to see this foreign being at close quarters, but I was determined that only I should feed him, that only I initially should enter his room. I wanted him to become accustomed to me. For hours I sat on the floor of the storage vault, relishing the coolness of the air down there, poking slices of softening fruit through the bars of his cage.
A week later the Heart of Gold set sail once more. I had long since grown immune to sea-sickness, and with a fully settled stomach I was forced to watch, appalled, as my prize, my joy, my captive Pongo succumbed instantly to the very scourge I myself had suffered for a significant part of the outbound voyage. His beautiful brown eyes turned in on themselves, half-closed in anguish, and his head dipped to the cage floor as though his skull had been filled with lead. Pools of slushy vomit came from him in spasms. I saw myself mirrored in every fold of his misery-stricken frame. I hung by the bars, powerless to alleviate his suffering, tormented by memories, and at times convinced it was a hospital bed by which I sat rather than a cage. At one time I even held his hand. His black knuckly fingers and elongated palm were quite at odds with my own, and yet there was a strange familiarity in our convergence. His antipathy weakened by illness, he let his hand lie loosely in mine, until in a sudden return to lucidity I grew frightened and snatched mine away, fearing he might crush every bone within it in one brief clench.
For lack of things to talk about (I was not at all inclined, you see, to mention James), I began to tell my Pongo the story of Professor R., the English gentleman who had accompanied us on the outbound journey. My poor ailing ape lay listless inside his cage, wasting before my eyes, as I recounted the Professor’s last-minute arrival aboard the Heart of Gold in Liverpool. At first none of us could understand what he was about – he was patently neither a scientist, nor an explorer, nor an East India Company official, nor did he seem to have any experience of sea-faring. He had brought with him a boy, lanky and overpoweringly rich, who had no clear practical function. The boy was Oxford-educated but gossipy and excitable, and from him we ascertained that their journey held something of the nature of a treasure hunt. They were following in the footsteps, he told us, of a learned German, who had come out this way some twenty years past, claiming to know the location of a large deposit of sapphires. Sapphires, we all said in awe, our eyes reflecting his. Yes indeed, and what was more, he explained, the German was said to have died out there in western Sumatra, and had left behind the location of the sapphires, concealed in a series of unbreakable riddles.
‘And you intend to break these riddles, is it?’ said the Second Mate, with a touch of scepticism: a husked-out carving of a man, he was, beaten and whittled by years at sea.
‘The Professor was presented with a copy,’ said the boy, eager to recapture his audience. We were gathered in the doorway of the kitchen galley, where a few of us tended to congregate late in the afternoon in order to filch scents and occasional morsels from the Cook, a balding, genial Welshman. The smell of salted pork rose tantalisingly amongst us. ‘A traveller brought back a version of the riddles,’ went on the boy, ‘which was quite terribly garbled, as he had them only from the lips of a native and had not seen the original, so he could make but an approximate rendering. This copy made its way in the hands of the traveller to England and to Oxford, where certain erudite individuals directed it towards the Professor, on account of his expertise.’
‘Expertise in riddles, you mean, sir?’ asked the Cook’s boy, who was taking his time peeling some potatoes at the bench nearby.
‘Expertise in languages,’ said the student animatedly. ‘I was in the very room with him at the time! The traveller handed this worn old piece of parchment to the Professor, and the Professor put on his spectacles, took a cursory look, and at once declared the writing to be in that language known to us as Old Irish.’
‘And what,’ said the Second Mate, ‘would Old Irish writing be doing in Sumatra?’
‘That’s just it, old thing, don’t you see – this German explorer had a fanatical interest in medieval languages. Well known for it. Very learned chap, by all accounts. So he set down his priceless legacy in Old Irish, knowing that only a western scholar of medieval languages would be able to unravel it!’
‘Or an eastern scholar,’ suggested the Cook’s boy helpfully.
‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous,’ snapped the undergraduate. ‘There are no scholars of Medieval Irish in the East.’
For the first leg of the journey the Professor mainly kept to himself. Emerging from my haze of sea-sickness, I would see him occasionally in the mornings, rooted against the sunrise in the whispering dawn mist, staring out hungrily over the ocean as though searching for a lost child in the distance. We exchanged polite ‘good mornings’ by the rail, but he would each time nod with a silent smile and wander away along the deck, absorbed in his own pursuits. I was baffled to learn that he had shared no lengthy or meaningful conversation with any of the crew during my weeks of confinement to my cabin. I wondered if perhaps he too was battling some private malaise.
One day I happened upon him in the corridor as I was returning to my cabin. It was mid-morning and we could hear faintly one of the deckhands singing somewhere above, over the gentle creaking of the hull. I invited the Professor in and he glanced round my cabin, a polite half-smile on his lips. He spotted the small collection of books kept by my bunk and enquired as to their contents. We sat together, looking through them one by one, as I explained their relevance to my research. He listened with courteous concentration to my somewhat laboured accounts of the works of Wallace, of Lacépède, of Darwin. He had heard of Darwin, of course, and seemed impressed when I mentioned that I had in fact met the great man, when he attended one of my lectures in Cambridge. ‘Really?’ said the Professor with unexpected animation; ‘and you think he is correct in his theories?’ I asserted that I did. ‘Fascinating,’ murmured the Professor, ‘fascinating. I know so little about it all, but it seems truly pioneering, does it not?’ Encouraged, I went on to outline the nature of my proposed research. He seemed to take a genuine interest in the topic and asked insightful questions. It was the first properly intellectual conversation I had conducted in some months, my attention having been devoted most recently to the persuasion of various funding committees and subsequently to sea-sickness, and in my animation I quite forgot, for a time, the burden that lay settled like a black mould upon my heart.
I enjoyed talking to him. He had a way of listening with his eyes, without attempting to interject, which coaxed one to continue one’s line of thought. He was older than I but seemed younger – not in appearance, but in some intangible way; perhaps spiritually. I learned that he was unmarried and childless, and wondered if this might explain it.
His reversal of this question took me, stupidly, by surprise. Before I could pause to collect myself I had begun to tell him about James. Panic seized me and for a moment all I could see was the hospital bed. I talked on in sudden silence – the ship had hit a calm patch – and when I finished he said only, ‘Blimey, old chap. What rotten luck.’ He then patted my shoulder and left the cabin, once more offering me that polite smile from the doorway. He returned later that evening with a bottle of whisky, which he had been keeping hidden in his luggage, and we drank ourselves into giddy, hiccoughing giggles that for a time drowned out all else.
Today I sat for eleven hours in the damp of below-decks, leaving only briefly for a bowl of soup, which I did not taste. The smell of the ape’s vomit has permeated my nasal cavity to the point where it seems never to leave me. Williamson is most eager to see the beast, even offering me money for a chance to enter the storage room, and growing thuggish and sullen with me when I refused. I wish now that Captain H. had not agreed to take him.
Following my impromptu confession, the Professor and I grew close. At first I found it odd to confide in a fellow human being. I had grown too used to intellectual solitude and to the company of Joseph, whose deplorable grasp of English induced in me a tendency to shout bad-temperedly and to speak in improvised pidgin. With the Professor, my eloquence returned. We discussed politics, religion, Darwin. He was as unschooled in biology as a new-born infant and I gained intense enjoyment from opening his eyes to the changing face of evolutionary theory. My own work, he said frequently, was sure to prove as revolutionary in its way as that of Darwin, for who had ever dreamt of attempting such a thing before? The presence of so captive and easily enthralled an audience lent me a wonderful flood of confidence. I encouraged the Professor to instruct me, similarly, in the theory of languages, assuming it would give him equal satisfaction. His interest in his own subject, however, seemed somewhat perfunctory: he could talk fluently for hours about similarities between the Brittonic and Goidelic verb systems, but I could sense his attention wandering, and he was far keener to discuss his current quest. On the subject of the riddles he spoke fast and fervently, made frantic by his eagerness to find and solve them.
He showed me the version of these riddles he had acquired in Oxford, copied carefully down into two separate notebooks, in case one should be lost. I, predictably, could make nothing of them. The Professor sat like an entranced child pointing out which possible word-boundaries and spelling adjustments might turn this text into something legible. At times I found his obsession a little unsettling, but I comforted myself with the thought that when it came to my own project I was, after all, quite as fanatical as he. I had taken to poring over anatomical sketches for hours, examining every available example of how the femur lay just here, how the pelvic bones curved just here, with such astounding similarity to the structure of a human. Really, only the proportions were wrong.
‘But if God created us in His image,’ mused the Professor, ‘does that mean that He too shares structural similarities with the apes?’
My Sumatran Pongo has found his sea-legs. I entered the storage room below-decks today to find him sitting upright, surrounded by drying puddles of vomit, but wide-eyed and alert. Upon my approach he began to hoot ferociously and to drum his long hands upon the floor. A dazzling oval of fangs was bared in my direction as his lips furled backwards.
I halted in the doorway, my limbs frozen. I felt drenched with terror at the hatred outlined in those fangs, at the enormity of what I was attempting to do. The ape huddled his bulk close to the ground and spat impenetrable noises in my direction.
‘Pongo,’ I whispered, gentle as a mother. ‘Pongo?’
He went silent. I advanced a few paces and he let out a howl like a wounded dog. I froze once more. For a long time we regarded each other, the ship creaking around and above us, disgorging occasional falls of dust from the oaken planks. The ape hung suspended on his muscled limbs. His eyes were round, dark, and unreadable.
I sat on the floor, about eight feet from his cage. I was trying to move slowly but still he flinched and shrieked as though I had struck him. He began to scream and to batter himself against the bars of the cage, which, thank God, held firm.
‘Pongo,’ I kept saying, soothingly, ‘Pongo, Pongo, good Pongo…’
All day I sat there. I sat as immobile as a Buddha, while he howled and shrieked and tore at himself and at the bars. Twice he vomited, painfully, for there was nothing in his stomach.
Towards evening he calmed. I shuffled closer. He regarded me with bright eyes, though he must have been exhausted. Very slowly, very carefully, I fed the decomposing fruits through the bars, using a stick to propel them. Their sugary stench seeped into the thick air like liquid.
We were close; he could almost have reached through the bars and grabbed me. But he did not. Never once taking his eyes from my face, he extended a slow, graceful arm, closed those miraculously human fingers around a fig, and brought it to his mouth. Despite his hunger, he ate unhurriedly. I sat still, although inside I quivered with excitement.
Upon returning to my cabin an hour or so ago, I brusquely dismissed Joseph’s offers of food. He hung in the doorway, padding from foot to bare foot in his agitation, insisting that ‘Sir must food, Sir will again make sick,’ until I barked at him to leave me in peace, for the love of Christ, and slammed the cabin door in his face.
I wrote up my findings, trying to keep to the rigours of scientific analysis. Pongo’s languid grace, his soulful brown eyes, in which I felt sure I had almost been able to read expressions, crept softly in and out of my vision as the ship rocked and bucked beneath my pen.
Breakfast on the poop deck this morning was a light-headed affair – partly from excitement, partly from having slept on an empty stomach. I was sour and gruff with Joseph, who, affronted, tiptoed pointedly around me with his indignation etched on his ugly face.
‘Hardly saw you yesterday,’ said Williamson. ‘Busy time of it?’
I explained to him my breakthrough of the day before.
‘The ape was seasick?’ said Captain H. in disbelief, while Williamson helped himself to another apple. ‘But it is not human, no?’
‘Therein lies the question,’ I said happily.
The Second Mate, who was being inexpertly served scrambled eggs by the cabin boy, for some reason threw me a look of hatred at this. I ignored him.
‘When will we be allowed to see the creature?’ asked Williamson.
‘He is very unsettled,’ I said, and recounted the ape’s frenzied attempts to force his way from the cage. ‘We must make every effort not to alarm him. I need to observe his behaviour in a relaxed, natural state.’
‘Bit difficult, in the bowels of a ship,’ said Williamson, with something of a smile stretching his dark lips.
‘When we reach London,’ I said, ‘the ape will be contained within a fully modernised facility, where he will be comfortable and content, and we will be able to observe him extensively. I am merely conducting preliminary research at present.’
‘You have everything you need?’ the Captain asked. ‘Food for the ape, water and so on?’
‘Yes, what does it eat?’ said Williamson. ‘Does it share your salted pork?’
‘A fresh supply of fruit would be helpful,’ I admitted, addressing the Captain.
He gave an expansive Danish shrug, implying that such a feat was impossible. I thanked him anyway. Williamson was smiling implacably into his bowl.
As we neared Sumatra, the Professor retreated to his cabin. He and the undergraduate closeted themselves for hours, studying their riddles. When I walked past their door I could sometimes hear snatches of conversation: ‘Don’t give me that bloody rot,’ the Professor exclaimed on one such occasion. ‘That is an infixed pronoun if ever I saw one.’ I withdrew to my cabin in turn and devoted myself to my own researches, although in truth there was not much more I could do until we reached the island. We had entered the waiting phase. Each day the ship ploughed dreamily through turquoise seas, willed along by the wind and by the power of our fantasies.
In the final few days, I saw the Professor only at mealtimes. I tried to question him about his work, but he was distracted and answered disjointedly. I could not understand what drove him. His was not a case of scientific curiosity like my own, yet nor was he the type to chase wealth. I wondered at his courage, his resolve. I wondered, once or twice, if he might not possess something of a death-wish. This thought, when set in daylight against the calming brown of his eyes, woke within me a horror so deep and so profoundly physical that I wanted almost to wrap my arms around him and keep that small body from whatever self-inflicted harm lay in store.
As we drew towards the green forested island, the Professor’s legs straightened with anticipation. He began to pace by the rail where once he had stood contentedly still, and his hands tapped feverishly against his flanks, as though in search of some half-remembered book in the depths of a distant library. The stench of vegetation hit our chests like a lance after so long at sea.
Our host in Sumatra was an enormous Dutchman, who operated as some kind of colonial administrator in the town of Padang. He welcomed us with excitement, but upon ascertaining that none among us (other than Joseph) could speak Dutch, he swiftly lost interest, and for the rest of our stay treated us with polite indifference. His servant was a languid Portuguese boy of indeterminate age, who skulked behind his master and provoked an evident wariness amongst the dogs. Joseph greeted this creature with a cry of delight and spoke to him in enthusiastic, if almost certainly dreadful, Portuguese.
We were quartered at a grand residence built in the native style but fitted out with western furniture, all of it imported from Holland and slowly rotting in the humidity. I sat at the mouldering table and leant both elbows upon it, still feeling the phantom sway of the ship beneath my body. The Professor was unpacking his notebooks.
‘Tomorrow we set out,’ he said. ‘Take the lie of the land. Will you accompany us, Dr Potts?’
‘Absolutely,’ I said. ‘I imagine our paths will run parallel for a time.’
‘Well, into the jungle.’
‘Ah,’ said the Professor. ‘Of course, the apes, yes, they live in the jungle.’
‘And your treasure?’ I prompted.
He paused with his hands in a suitcase. ‘Indeed,’ he said after a moment. ‘Very probably, the jungle, yes.’
The lanky undergraduate stood abruptly and left the room.
‘He is angry with me,’ the Professor said in a low voice. ‘He believed, I think, that I had more of an idea… More of a plan, perhaps, than I had shared with him…’
‘But you have deciphered the riddles, have you not?’ I asked. ‘Is their meaning really so opaque?’
‘Well, yes and no,’ said the Professor, and would say no more on the subject. We finished unpacking and made preparations for our first venture into the jungle.
The following day we struggled to corral the requisite natives and equipment for our excursion. The Dutchman was nowhere to be found, his household left in the charge of a cowed, miserable native who displayed no grasp of English and with whom even Joseph struggled to communicate. The morning was all but gone by the time we set out: the Professor, the undergraduate, Joseph and I, at the helm of a ten-strong team of natives armed with spears, nets and rifles.
The town was deserted. We walked through oppressive stillness beneath the fluff-bedecked kapok trees. The doorways of the huts to each side were flung into blackness by the midday sun. From the Dutchman’s yard, a lean dog raged against the great heated silence of its world.
We walked for most of the day. The Professor was looking for something, he seemed unsure quite what, but it involved water. The natives guided him from this stream to that, and once to a small pond which had hewn itself deep into the rock. He spent a long time examining this pond. I sat a little way off, with Joseph, who was complaining of heatstroke. I asked him if he knew what heatstroke was; he waved a vague hand and said, ‘It affects I think the feets,’ then grew surly when I scoffed at him.
In the following weeks, while the ship was unloaded and restocked with fresh cargo, and rates were negotiated between Captain H. and the Dutch traders, the Professor and I tramped the jungle every day with our coterie of natives. Twice we caught glimpses of the orange ape: once a clump of bright hairs snagged on a jut of bark, once a wide, moon-like face, half-dark among the leaves, which withdrew into the upper reaches of the tree before we could get close. I was gibberingly excited by these encounters.
The Professor, on the other hand, seemed no closer to untangling his riddles. He woke early and sat up late into the evenings with his notebook. I joined him one night when I was unable to sleep, and asked to see his translation. He seemed near despair, his room a terrible mess of scrunched paper and ink stains. He showed me his efforts:
This life is headstrong. Life brings me into treachery and foreign seas. Life is grey and long. The ship leaves without the last survivors.
Further down the page were disjointed words such as alder tree, small body of water (?) and hole / cave?
That was all he had written.
‘But what does it mean?’ I asked.
‘Ravings of a lunatic,’ he spat, and threw down his pen.
We climbed high into the mountains the next day. Our intention was to camp overnight in the jungle, so as to explore further into these high parts, where the natives claimed we would find a greater concentration of the orange apes. Professor R. wished to investigate an ancient shrine. The granite sides of the mountains rose sheer and vertical as cliffs, cloud vapours curling and whispering around them ever more thickly as we climbed. My dampened eyelashes broke the fog into rainbows.
The shrine, when we reached it, was tended by an elderly native. The Professor hurried over to him, beckoning Joseph, and asked a series of questions that met mostly with incomprehension, though this may have been due to Joseph’s translation. The Professor had with him a small pencil sketch of the learned German’s face, and upon showing this to the native he was rewarded at last with a positive response. ‘He have see,’ Joseph exclaimed. ‘He have see a German with own eye! He came here, he search about in the jungle, just like we do. He die not far from here.’
‘Where?’ the Professor asked urgently, but Joseph could make nothing of the reply.
We pitched camp in the midst of a sudden and atrocious rain shower that soaked us to the bone. The Professor and I shared a tent, while the undergraduate, much to his disgust, had to share with Joseph. The rain thundered down for hours. It seemed to me that I could hear great movements outside the tent, large animals passing by in droves amidst the rain, footsteps so huge and so close they sounded certain to flatten the tent. I saw them in my mind’s eye as towering apes: the Gigantopithecus of legend, ancient ancestral ape of India and beyond, rolling through the jungle on his knuckles, his teeth the length of a human skull. I woke in the dark to hear the Professor chattering and moaning. When I touched his skin, it burned against my fingers. I alerted the natives and the undergraduate and shouted for water. All night we tended him, but his fever raged like a thing alive. At first light we broke camp. Under my instruction, the natives rigged a makeshift litter out of branches and carried the Professor between them. I was convinced now that he would die.
Our return trip took most of the day, slowed as we were by the litter. The Professor lay unconscious throughout. At last we neared the town. I ran ahead for help. It was getting dark, and jungle shadows leapt out of crevices like bats. The Dutchman’s boy sat by the steps, skinning a litter of puppies.
‘Get help!’ I shouted to him. ‘The Professor is taken ill.’
He looked at me blankly, as though he did not understand. I ran past him into the house. The Dutchman was in his office with a beautiful native woman in his lap.
We got the Professor back to the house and made him comfortable. I sat by him. He woke towards midnight and began to rave, asking for his notebooks, insisting he had cracked the translation, at last, that he knew now where to look. Several times he implored me to fetch the undergraduate, but I was afraid to leave his side. He was trembling, his white face tarred and looped across with sweat. His face became James’s face. I caught hold of his hand and felt the frantic weight of it, the heat of fever breaking in waves through his skin.
In the morning the undergraduate came. The Professor gripped his wrist with death’s own strength, instructing him in a low, strangled whisper: back to the shrine, up into the hills, further, further. I couldn’t bear to listen. I stood by the door and my mind unknotted in the sickroom’s raw heat.
The Professor died later that day, our twenty-third in Sumatra. In the afternoon the alert went up that the natives had captured my ape. He was brought into town in his wooden cage, and Joseph said he was health, he health. We buried the Professor in the Dutch cemetery and put the ape on board ship.
The undergraduate was to stay behind. This was largely at my insistence: the Professor had tasked him with continuing their quest, I explained to Captain H., and there was no question of him returning to England until it was complete. He could find his way home on another ship, after all; this was a busy route; we wouldn’t be stranding him. The undergraduate said nothing. I could see Joseph leering at him from the corner of the room while I spoke.
We left Sumatra a week later on a wave of jade-green, crested with tiny fish that flashed like sparks of silver around our bow.
I slept poorly. The Professor slipped in and out of my dreams like a sandman, quietly and with his hands in his pockets, polite as always, a small man in a big, restless ocean.
We took breakfast in the Captain’s cabin today. Williamson pestered me as usual to let him see my ape, and as usual I refused.
‘What do you do with him down there, anyway?’ he asked. ‘You just feed him fruit?’
‘I am conducting scientific observations,’ I replied.
‘Your boy says you talk to it,’ said Williamson. ‘He’s heard you through the door. Says you tell it stories about your life, your dead son.’
My hand clenched on the salt shaker. I was paralysed with fury at Joseph for daring to discuss my business with this stranger. Furthermore, I was confused: I could not remember having spoken to the ape about James.
That afternoon I returned to my cabin for a brief nap. I left Joseph outside the door to the storage vault, with instructions to let nobody enter. These instructions he disobeyed: I learned later that Williamson had offered him money, for a ‘quick look’ at the ape. As soon as I woke, I knew in my heart that something was wrong. I hurried from my cabin. It was raining on deck. An endless, hissing storm had engulfed all of the tropics.
There was some commotion around the stairs that led to the storage vault. People were gathered, braced against the rain, speaking in wary, urgent tones. Joseph came running inelegantly towards me along the sloping deck. ‘Your monkey,’ he cried through the rain. ‘Your Pongo – he dead.’
‘What’s that?’ I barked. ‘Speak up, man.’
‘He dead,’ Joseph repeated, in tears, ‘they shoot him dead.’
Knocking him aside, I hurried below in search of Captain H. The ape had gone suddenly mad, it transpired; had seized Williamson through the bars and torn his arm clean out of its socket. That and the consequent blow to his head against the bars had damn near killed him. A mound of crumpled orange flesh lay on the floor of the cage.
But worse news was to come. My beloved Pongo, it turned out, was not what I had thought him – I, who had gazed into the depths of the beast and caught my own reflection mirrored in his heart; he was not even, in fact, a he. The Cook’s boy, attracted by the demented shrieking of Williamson, had entered into the fray and had discovered, tucked lovingly beneath the hay at the back of the cage, a sturdy little old-man, long-limbed and red-haired, blinking with the peaceable curiosity of the innocent. The Cook’s boy at once stove its head in.
‘She must’ve been up the stick when we brung ’er aboard,’ the boy said apologetically, handing me the limp, blood-soaked bundle. ‘I din’t mean it, sir, see, but this thing startled me so bad, I’d clattered it with me ’ammer before’s I could think.’
I stared down into the dead eyes – a pleasing, calming brown, now streaked with red – and felt as though the balloon-string tethering me to the rest of the earthly world had been snipped; as though my own skull had been smashed open like that of Pongo’s baby, to let the sweet ocean air rush bewilderingly in. I saw myself standing by the rail with James in my arms and the water crashing up and over our heads. I stared down into his eyes, and I swear to God, I wept for him as a man might weep for his own flesh and blood. ∎
Katie McIvor is a Scottish writer and library assistant. She studied at the University of Cambridge and now lives in England with her husband and two dogs. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as The Deadlands, Neon, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, her three-story collection is out now with Ram Eye Press, and she has a story coming, ‘O Sole Mio’, in Interzone #295. You can find her on Twitter at @McKatie or at her website katiemcivor.wordpress.com
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