Full moon over Berlin

By Aileen Hennes

Won first price short story 2001 in the George Moore Literary Awards and was published the same year in « Western People ».

Par Aileen Hennes

Il a remporté le premier prix aux George Moore Literary Awards en 2001 et a été publié la même année dans « Western People » Ireland.

I pull the sack off my head and watch her approach.

What has she brought today, then? Pressing my face against the glass that separates us I look down into her handbag. There’s lots of stuff there, but she pulls out only the mirror. Always the mirror! Will she never tire of the mirror game?

With the nail bitten long finger of her right hand she presses the button on the side of the gold compact. It’s a long time since there’s been any face powder in it, certainly not in the mirror-lady’s day. For her it plays a part in a ceremony. Our ceremony. By way of initiatory rite she breathes on the glass and polishes it with her sleeve. Only then, with the portentious look of a priestess, does she reveal the mirror to me and fairly drools with expectation as my face – the complete kisser – enters the tiny circle.

I play along and make a show of excitement before I fall into the act of observing the flat ape face that is wavering slightly in her nervous hand. She is holding her breath. It is a solemn moment. What she thinks I’m saying to myself is this: “I exist inside that mirror – therefore I am”.

Ahhh, here are some more regulars!

It’s the two dipsticks who always cling to each other and smile too much. Humans are careless with their facial expressions. The pair stop just behind the mirror-lady and all together they look at me in awe as I hold a hand up to the mirror and trace, with a finger, the lifeline that runs across it. They are spellbound. It really takes very little to hold their attention. But after a while their smiles unnerve me. I lunge for my sack and pull it over my head.

One can only take so much!

Last night there was a full moon over Berlin. It glowed limpid in the murky brown sky, that turbid substance occasionally lit up by petrochemically induced northern lights, flashing purple, orange, green and yellow. The night was warm so I was still in my outside enclosure when it became closing time at the zoo. My keeper very kindly forgot to shut me in. There can be a lot of understanding in an individual human being, it is as a species they spell trouble.

They want everything to be different and think that they can make a better job of the world by recreating it. To this end they have started an enormous experiment, involving absolutely everyone, whether one wants to be in on it or not. Even I am part of the experiment, although my rôle is a tiny one. And that’s my point: it is simply not healthy for a big ape to feel that he is playing too small a part! But what can I do? Confinement makes you feel small. It’s only when I pull the sack over my head that I get a sense of space. But I know it’s no solution.

The sack must come off occasionally.

When I do pull it off – there is the glass wall.

And beyond it, the silent pantomime of the public. At this very moment the three women are waiting for my next move. I stare at them out of the corner of my eye while I pick up something to put in my face. Not that I’m hungry, it’s just something to do. But horror of horrors, I didn’t notice what it was before I started chewing! I really ought to be wise to this by now and pay more attention while rifling through the limp fruit and veg offerings they dump on the floor of my cage. The thing I have in my mouth is the most ghastly of human inventions: in an attempt to reproduce that part of my natural diet that is durian fruit, they have come up with red cabbage. I spit the half chewed mess into my hand and pick it over for some good bits – there’s a piece of guava – which I stick back in my mouth, before I sling the rest against the window.

The women jump back, with a look that says: “You sadden us by your behaviour, you otherwise nearly-human brute.”

I am just about to pull the sack over my head again when another female person saunters into the ape house. She’s small, but her coat is on the large side and covered with dangling mirrors. To the annoyance of my regular visitors she’s swinging an umbrella quite carelessly. She’s never been here before and stands still for a while in the middle of the room, leaning on the umbrella. Just looking about as it were. Then she takes the anti-clockwise round. Starting with the chimps. It’s what they all do.

I start counting: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven… The new guest contemplates her remote ancestors somewhat longer than the average 18 seconds. Not bad! A point is awarded The Specially Interested Guest.

It is claimed that the human capacity for concentration is infinitely greater than in any other primate, but according to my observations this is far from the case and I suspect that their mistaken belief might be due to their observations never being impartial.

But what is the little woman doing now? Why is she opening the umbrella in front of the gorilla’s cage? And why is she running back to the chimps with it… Oh well, she’s neither the first nor likely to be the last weirdo on that side of the glass; we inmates seem to attract them. It’s just one of those things we have to live with. Strangely, the gorilla and the chimps seem spellbound by her. The other ladies are watching her too and exchanging meaningful glances.

Ah! At last she’s heading this way.

I take a deep breath and get a pump on the muscles. C’mon lady, come an’ ogle! I’ll be awesome for you! I might even show you how I can twitch my flanges. But what’s got into her now? She’s standing right in front of my cage, but instead of looking at me she’s folding the umbrella down over her head and shoulders, then opening it again… it’s floating out of her hand… spreading like a blue sky above her head… the vaulted underside is becoming darker ( a darker blue that is, not brown!) and there are stars twinkling on it… like the whole universe has entered the ape house…

Shit! What am saying!

Brrr…it’s cold…and where’s she gone? The umbrella is lying on the floor and in answer to my unuttered question the mirror-lady picks it up. But the woman is not there. She’s vanished… The dipsticks look petrified, their silly smiles for once wiped off their silly faces. So, what happened? Can anybody tell me? I throw a glance in the direction of the chimps, but they are playing as usual. Gorilla looks inscrutable; that’s an expression an ape is prone to put on when he’s forgotten how to climb trees. His wife is tickling the baby, as wives are wont to do.

Where’s my sack? I need my sack!

Inspired by the full moon last night I filled my throat-pouch with air and let out my first ever territorial call. It had to be done and the night was right for it. Inside as well as outside the zoo the wide eyed creatures of the dark breathed again with relief. The day had drawn to a close and the useful ones

– the engineers, builders, architects and car mechanics – were asleep. Hundreds of yellow safety-helmets were resting on shelves. From Potsdam Platz the red eyed mechanical cranes extended their necks and hung over the Tiergarten, impassively entertained by muggings and sodomy.

Inside the zoo, camel and elephant dung, musk and urine, succulent grass, young leaves and flowers, all mixed into a luscious perfume. I breathed it in so deep that I felt the pouch under my chin would burst. As it swelled it made me feel empowered like never before. Finally I let loose a bone chilling cry to the moon. In the jungle it would have silenced every other beast; here a police-car siren cut my call short.


My sack is a finely scented coffee-bag from Java. The coarsely woven sack­cloth has the advantage that it allows me to peer out though it. That’s if I want to. Usually I prefer not and it’s dark enough inside that I can easily forget the world around me. If, however, something interesting should happen I’ll know about it right away.

That the three women are tired of waiting is something I choose to ignore. I am their favourite primate and that’s understandable, but they should nevertheless show themselves willing – just occasionally – to be entertained by the chimps or the gorillas.

Totally impervious to their expectations I am not though, every so often I lift an eyelid and peek out. The mirror-lady is still examining the umbrella, shaking it, opening and shutting it again. And what’s she doing now? Holding it up to her ear! She beckons the others and they all squeeze together under the fabric vault. The dipsticks are agitated; their mouths have dropped open in awe and when a young couple with a child enter the gallery, all three go ape-shit and scream, as if they’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t have.

It’s business time! Off with The Java! I throw it onto a long dead and well rubbed branch – a prop on my private stage – and walk up to the glass pane. I look at the child and with reassuring calm entice it towards me. It puts a hand on the glass. I put mine on the same spot on the inside. We look at each other. I look at the father. He looks at his mobile phone. It reminds him of the millions of years that have passed since our common ancestors parted ways. There is a debate going on whether it is in fact four, or fifteen million years. This man likes to keep a distance, he’s a fifteen-million-year man.

My greenish fibreglass floor has a nest made in it. It is a ridiculous feature that embarrasses me, although I am in no way responsible for its being there. I walk across to it and attempt to curl up inside; trying to fit all 300lbs of me into the shallow crater. If I crawl in on all fours my arse sticks up in the air and if I lie down on my back there is what to do about yard an’ a ‘alf long arms… The child laughs, not yet aware of the pathos of the clown. But the mother is. She explains: orang = man u = of tan = forest. Man of the forest.

“In the wild orangutans sleep in the treetops, in nests they make from branches and leaves,” she says, then adds: “They build a fresh one every night”. To hear it put like that is like having a fairy tale read aloud: “Once there was a nest made of fresh leaves perched way up in the crown of a magnificent mahogany tree under the twinkling stars…” She’s decidedly a four-million-year woman this mother and I would have liked to have told the child that it ought to be very proud of her. She’s not like those who make a doo-da about the insurmountable distance between us. On the contrary, she is genuinely interested in what we have in common as well as curious about that which makes us different. But unfortunately for all us captives doing life here at the zoo, she’s not one that will take up arms for our cause. She’s a soft-spoken one, that one. Not an agitator.

I shall have to do my own agit-prop! I grab the two orange cones that are here for me to play with. My keeper nicked them from some road-works on a drunken spree one night – a night she’d had no luck in love. At least I assume this is the case whenever she comes here in the wee hours and weeps. It used to alarm me, but only until I realised that she’s a dyke and that I’m the only male in the whole world that she likes. As a matter of fact there is a part of her that always thinks of me. In the evenings, when the park gates shut behind her and she jumps on her bike, I’m pretty sure that I’m still inside her head – like a vapour. With one plastic cone in each hand I whirl – round and round and round – until I stop abruptly and throw them into the air. I look at the father again. Defiantly. Alpha male to alpha male. But he’s not having any. He is thinking of DNA: a late addition to the Great Experiment. It is a measure used in the deliberations concerning which species shall continue to co-habit this earth alongside of man. Some want it to be whales and dolphins, nobody wants rats, although there are those who think capybaras are cute, but primates are all time favorites. And of all the apes, chimps and gorillas have the closest DNA to mankind. That counts. Orangutans fall short of the 99 percent mark. DNA, of course, is only the currently used measurement, with a breakthrough in microbiology everything will change again and no-one knows who’ll be on top of the list then…

The father touches the child lightly, and points in the direction of the gorillas. “They have family structures almost like ours”, he explains. “Yeah”, I think, “they’ll soon be divorcing too, living cooped up in monogamy as they do in here…”

Ahhh. Dear mirror lady; she wants to intervene on my behalf. But does she have the courage? Indeed she does! With a self-effacing, cringing motion she waves to the child to come and see me look at myself in the mirror. She does not give two hoots about DNA and when microbiology comes along she’ll choose not to know. She bares her nicotin-stained fangs apologetically, showing all her teeth and the pink skin under her upper lip in archetypical beta-submission. At this point her resemblance to the chimps really is amazing. The alpha male pushes out his chest in warning, but the gold compact is nevertheless opened up before me. The nail bitten fingers of the inferior woman are evidently capable of independent action. This is a curious thing about humans; made of a slippery sort of material their constituent parts do not make a clearly defined whole; their hands may be doing something alpha when the rest of them are exuding beta, or vice-versa…

However that may be, as I look beguilingly into the flat ape face, as I gently touch parts of it in a histrionic gesture of recognition, I have them all under my spell. As I said before, every mother’s son and daughter is imagining that what I am saying is: “I exist inside that mirror – therefore I am”.

For the moment my place in The Great Experiment is secured. Thanks to the mirror-lady and her gold compact.

After my abortive call last night I decide just to take a wank this evening… Following a ululation like that one I should have been inundated by horny females. In the forest ‘roar and wait’ is all a mature and handsome male ­like me – would have to do to get a piece of nookie. Idle rumour among the apes here in the zoo has it that lady orangutans come and tweak your prick when they want to bonk. And if you’re slow on the uptake they swing into the branches above and piss on your head. I’ll never know, of course: even our sex-lives are subject to scientific tinkering. Be that as it may, in my imagination I am just about to give it to a shaggy red haired piece of crumpet, when this bloke – obviously at the end of his tether – interrupts my moonlight extravaganza. He’s a small pale man, swaying at the knees, oozing of beer and humming to the tune of: “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille…”

“Scarper”, I say. “Go away! Piss off!”

But he just stands there, on the lawn outside the garden part of my cage. I grab the bars in front of him and give them a shake. At least the singing comes to an end. We stare at each other for a long time until he breaks down, puts his face against my knuckles, and cries. His tears run over my wrists and into the fur on my arms.

It’s not the first time it happens. Not only my keeper comes to me for solace. Oh no! It is obviously very, very lonely out there. I’d say that loneliness is no less than the human condition. The Experiment, which requires one and all to do his or her share of managing, controlling, and in all manner of ways, recreate nature according to man’s will, is hard, solitary work. Take me, for example: I am part of the human condition too. There is no ‘me’; taken out of my natural habitat I don’t exist as anything but a fragment of their imagination. In the jungle my life would be a free gift from no-one knows where. Being an ape, I would accept the gift outright. No questions asked; no complaints. I would eat, drink, socialise occasionally, copulate and die. But would I have enjoyed it? Or even more to the point: would I have been of use in the great scheme of things in the fifty odd years in which I would have absorbed sunlight, smells, touch, sounds and a certain amount of knowledge? It would never have occurred to me to ask. But they asked – at the time when our ancestors parted ways – and The Great Experiment is a search for the answer.

They all feel superior to me – this man who is weeping into my fur, and even my keeper whose only use in the world lies in being my servant. A superfluous task, to my mind, as I certainly never requested that someone bring me my food, or clean up my faeces.
   Similarly if someone were to ask me…
No, I’m not kidding about the possibility of this: everybody visits the zoo at some time or another. The exceptions are glaring absences: Elias Canetti for one. And he almost did come, had he not stopped outside the gate to listen to the lament of the elephants: the most heartrending lament of them all.

But town-planners and politicians – who wouldn’t know a lament from an advertising jingle – are often seen strolling in the park. Were any of them to ask me what I think of the plans for the new city-centre – whether for instance I approve the extensive modernisations, or if I’m satisfied with the way the groundwater is being diverted into pipes and circulated above the surface throughout the building-period, or indeed if I am impressed by the satellite operated high-precision drill that is being used in building the new underground railway system, I’d tell them: “No! No, no, no! It is all superfluous! Surely you’ve poured enough cement onto the surface of the earth by now to know that it is not the answer…” And then I would suggest an alternative: “Stop, I’d say, stop at once, lay down the drill, watch the satellite hurtle out of orbit and into space, return the groundwater to the ground, open the gates of your botanical gardens and witness the imperceptible march of the plants. To hell with all cabbages! Taste the durian fruit! Open my cage and let me swing in the trees along with all the politicians. That way you may enjoy watching their red arses rather than seeing their red faces”.

The little man has dried his tears and is walking away from me down the path that goes past the antelopes. He’s humming again – well, not really humming, it’s more like snivelling: “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille; four hungry children…”

Tomorrow he’ll be back at work, wearing a yellow safety-helmet, chart rolled up under his arm, ready to compartmentalise the world once more. It is instinct. They make tools and use them. They make more tools and have to find ways of using them as well.

When they are so impressed with the chimps it is because the chimps too use tools. Orangutans don’t as a rule, we just use sticks to scratch our backs and root out insects and seeds and things. Big deal. But why is nobody impressed with the way we swing from tree-top to tree-top? I mean, they can’t do that! Not even the gorillas can do that. But they don’t appreciate differences. They like only similarities, non threatening similarities.

I allow myself a little experiment before the engineer is out of sight, with the power of my thoughts I order him to: “Stop and turn around!” And indeed he does, he turns around and waves a hand. Have I found a method of communication, or is it just coincidence? He may be one of those rare exceptions who observe a modicum of politeness when they come to visit. True, I am but a humble civil servant, here to give the visitor a whiff of nature, but why, oh why, does it have to be such a thankless task! The witless look of your average punter is likely to drive this ape round the bend.

Just think of it: Eighteen seconds of incomprehension times how many billion of you…

Oh damn it! The sky is grey, the moon is invisible and it’s cold. The kind of cold that comes with Temperate Zone rain. The kind that chills tropical bones.

I go inside; the umbrella that’s been left on the floor is open, from under its dark blue skies there are trills and keens and a myriad of sounds from the rainforest. It’s probably a tape, but it’s nice.

Come to think of it I should have told the bloke that was here that somebody got the measurements all wrong when they made the nest in the fibreglass floor of my cage. It’s too small for me.

This whole life is too small for an ape.


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