Jennieby Douglas Preston
Douglas Preston's first solo novel, available for the first time in trade paperback, which explores the life of a chimpanzee brought up in a human family See more details below
Douglas Preston's first solo novel, available for the first time in trade paperback, which explores the life of a chimpanzee brought up in a human family
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By Douglas Preston
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1994 Douglas Preston
All rights reserved.
[From Recollecting a Life by Hugo Archibald, Ph.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., published by Harvard University Press. Copyright 1989 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used with permission.]
The Cameroons, April 15, 1965
I will not soon forget the day the two Makere men brought the chimpanzee into camp. The animal was slung over one man's shoulder and a thin rivulet of blood trickled down the shining hollow of the man's back, black blood glistening against black skin. I watched him through the half-open flap of the tent. He stopped in the clearing in front of the tent and slid his burden sideways on to the hardpacked dirt, where it lay with arms crossed. His friend stood next to him. Both their feet and legs were white with dust to the knees. The man straightened up and clapped his hands twice, sharply, to announce their arrival. I waited. The men knew I was in the tent, but to show myself too quickly would make negotiations over the price more difficult. I soon heard Kwele shouting at the visitors in Pidgin, the lingua franca of the Cameroons.
"Whah you done bring, hunter man? Na bad beef dis!"
Kwele was a fine negotiator. We had worked out an excellent system of softening up the seller.
"Masa no want dis beef! Masa done get angry too much. Go away!"
All this was part of the routine, and Kwele relished his role a great deal, perhaps a little too much. Naturally, I was excited by the prospect of acquiring the skull of a female chimpanzee. A small group of camp assistants had dropped their work and converged on the scene, with that look of boredom mixed with the faint hope that something unexpectedly unpleasant might happen. The two men stood behind the animal, stubborn and silent.
I moved aside the flap of my tent, without getting out of my chair. The shouting stopped and Kwele stood there grinning, holding a shovel.
"Eh!" he said. "Dese hunter man got um beef. Masa no want dis beef?"
I smiled and clapped my hands softly, as etiquette required. "Iseeya, hunter man," I said.
"Iseeya, sah," they said in unison. They were thin, with a delicate tracery of tattoos on their abdomens and around their nipples. One carried a tiny crossbow with a fascicle of darts.
"Thank you, Kwele," I said. Kwele grinned again, then scowled at the men.
The men shuffled their feet in the dust.
The animal was a female Pan troglodytes, a lowland chimpanzee, and she was very pregnant.
"You kill this beef with poison arrow?" I asked the two men.
One of the men stepped forward. "He go for stick, sah, shoot um with arrow." He held up the crossbow for me to inspect. ("Stick" is the Pidgin word for tree.)
I knelt by the animal and looked at her face. The eyes, which were half open, suddenly widened. It gave me quite a fright; the bite of a chimpanzee can break one's arm.
"Whah! Na alive, dis beef!" shouted Kwele accusingly, delighted to find one more thing wrong with the specimen. "Mebbe 'ee go hurt Masa! Den you go pay!"
"Poison be working," said one of the men placidly. "Ee go die one time." Then he added, firmly: "Masa gone pay twenty-five shillings."
"Na whatee!" cried Kwele. "Masa no go pay twenty-five shillings. Mebbe 'ee no go die attall!" "'Ee go die one time," the man repeated stolidly. He knew the efficacy of his poison, and so did I.
The dying animal stared at me with round dark eyes, and a gurgle sound issued from her throat. Her mouth opened, exposing a row of worn, heavily caried incisors. The hairs around her muzzle were gray, and one ear was in tatters, torn and healed long ago. She was old, and I remember thinking, Better to die old after a full life. And, of course, they would have killed her for food anyway.
"Go get my pistol," I said. Kwele ducked into the tent and came back with the holster carrying my Ruger .22 magnum. I checked the barrel to make sure it was loaded and leveled the gun at the animal's heart. A shot to the head would have destroyed the thing I needed for my taxonomic studies: the skull.
Then a movement began to take place, a quick even movement of the animal's body. I backed up, thinking she might be reviving. But then I realized something far different was going on. The animal was aborting her fetus.
"Roll her on her back," I shouted.
There was a sudden sharp murmur from the crowd; this was turning out to be far more interesting than yet another bargaining session for a dead specimen. The female chimpanzee began to shudder, and a whitish head, slick with thin black hairs, appeared. In a second it was over. The fetus lay on its side in the dust, and the afterbirth was sliding out. The mother's eyes were still open, looking.
Then I heard it: a tiny whistle; a thin simian cry.
"This thing's alive!" I said. "Kwele, go get a basin of water. You, hunter man, get back."
The crowd shoved forward and for a moment I thought the baby would be trampled.
"Back!" I cried.
I picked it up and, not knowing what else to do — and feeling more than a little foolish — I whacked it lightly on the back. The thing whistled and squeaked. I called for a machete and one was thrust into my hands; as I cut the umbilical cord a great "Ahhh!" rose from the crowd.
"Help me," I said to Kwele, who had returned with a sloshing basin. "Help me wash it. And you all, get back! You no go push, you hear! Go back to work!"
The crowd backed up, jostling each other. No one went back to work.
We washed it in the basin and Kwele held it while I carefully towled it dry. The baby chimpanzee had a white face, and fine black hair covering its body. It was a female. The hair was very long and as it dried it fluffed out from the chimp's body. When the animal was dry I wrapped her in the towel and cradled her in my arms. She had an impossibly tiny face, wrinkled and owlish, and her eyes were open. In a curious way her face looked both sorrowful and wise, as if she had seen a great deal of the world and its troubles. Which was amusing, since the only thing she had seen so far in the world was my unshaven face hovering over hers. It cried again, a very small sound, and the eyes widened and looked into my face. A wobbly arm, no bigger than a twig, reached up with five little fingers spread wide and groping, and it touched me on my chin. It was a sweet gesture, and in that brief moment, I was hopelessly entranced.
I have been asked many times why I took such a fancy to this little animal. My only answer is this: if you had been there, if you had seen this tiny little animal, with the pot belly and the surprised beady eyes peering at the world for the first time, and heard its helpless voice, you would have been won over just as I was. Perhaps this sounds overly sentimental coming from a scientist whose career had been collecting dead chimpanzees and examining their skeletons. I cannot, in the end, defend my sentimentality, except to say that scientists are human beings too. It was an utterly enchanting little animal.
When I recovered my senses I heard the sounds of an argument. Kwele was sweating and gesturing broadly at the two men, but the two men were not even looking at Kwele. They were looking at me. What they saw had, apparently, encouraged them to raise the price.
"Na whatee!" Kwele was shouting. "Masa done hear? Hunter man want de bigger dash! Fifty shillings! Hunter man no palaver with Masa no more. Get out! Go away!" He advanced at the men, flapping his arms like a big buzzard. They stood their ground, their faces without expression. The female chimpanzee lay on her back on the ground, momentarily forgotten, but still looking with strange terrible eyes at me and her baby.
The look in those dying eyes will never leave me. They stared upward like two cloudy gemstones, colorless, without light. The poison in the arrow that had struck her was, in chemical structure, like curare; it paralyzed first, killed second. It is not a merciful death: one dies fully conscious and aware of one's surroundings. The Africans call it chupu. It is a high-molecular-weight globulin protein, and as such it could not penetrate the placental barrier, which is why the infant was spared its effects. Looking back across nearly twenty-five years, knowing now what I did not know then — it seems to me it was a prophetic look, a gaze not at the present but into the future. I have always wondered: what was she thinking, as she hovered between life and death, when she saw this strange, white, hairless primate gently cradling her baby?
If this sounds like strange talk from a scientist — so be it. If there is one thing I have learned from a lifetime study of science, it is that the world is not a place we human beings will ever comprehend. Understand, yes; comprehend, no. The reason for this — like the reason for almost everything in the way we think — is evolution: our brains did not evolve to help us comprehend the true meaning of things, only to understand their mechanical workings. Knowing the true meaning of reality does not contribute to one's ability to survive, and thus this kind of understanding was not addressed by evolution.
I averted my eyes from that intense dying stare, and found myself looking at Kwele. "Fifty shillings!" he repeated. "Hunter man be robber man!"
"We don't want the female," I said, and then to make sure I was understood, repeated it again in Pidgin: "Masa no want dis beef. Kwele, shoot dis beef and tell hunter man to take it and get the hell out. Tell hunter man go for bush. Give him the fifty shillings."
"Ndefa mu! Fifty shillings! Up de twenty-five! Masa!"
"For God's sake, be quiet and give the man fifty shillings," I said, and went back into my tent, pulling the flap shut, with the baby in my arms. I could hear more shouting, a chorus of voices raised in discussion. Then there was a sudden hush, the sharp crack of the Ruger, and another swell of argument. After a while the talk died away and the camp became quiet.
As I thought about the events of the morning, I knew that my excellent relationship with Kwele had suffered possibly irreversible damage. I had allowed him to lose face in front of strangers, bush men of no status. Some repair work was in order. I opened the flap of my tent and called for Kwele.
The man arrived, after an appropriately insolent interval, and stood in the shade of the flap, his face uncharacteristically inscrutable.
"Kwele, I owe you an apology. Masa feel sorry. Kwele done good work."
A small quantity of disappointment leaked into Kwele's face. "Fifty shillings," he said. "We go pay five, ten shillings, Masa. Hunter man be nekkid bush man."
"I know," I said. "You savvay, Masa like dis small beef too much."
"Na fine ting dis big beef too. Why Masa no want big beef?"
"I know," I said. "We should have bought it." It had been a foolish thing not to acquire the female chimpanzee. I had to get one for my research project, and chimpanzees were becoming increasingly rare. I could not shake that look out of my memory.
There was a small silence.
"Kwele, would you mind bringing me some warm milk, please?"
The African spun around on his flat feet and flicked open the tent flap. He was still angry. I would have to think of something to bring him back around.
As I sat at my camp desk, the baby chimpanzee continued to look into my face with slitted eyes, her tiny arms bumping about. She said "oo oo oo" and grasped one of my fingers with both hands, her fingers closing on mine with surprising strength.
I suddenly felt quite strange, flooded with an unexpected surge of fatherly feeling.
I was searching for several species of pongid — chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), and gorillas, to be specific — for my major project at the Boston Museum, which was a reclassification of the primates. Because expeditions like this are extremely expensive, I was also collecting certain species of mammals for the Department of Mammalogy and lizards for the Department of Herpetology. The Ornithology Department had asked me to keep an eye out for a rare genus of raptor they were anxious to obtain.
During the next months we crossed the vast Batuti forest on wide forest trails, my camp assistants trailing me with bundles of equipment balanced on their heads. I had found this a much better method of travel than by Jeep, which in the mid-sixties in west Africa was infuriating. Jeeps broke down, sank into swamps, ran out of gas, and had their tires and batteries stolen. There were no spare parts to be had. The rapid population growth had pushed the really rare pongids into the deeper forests that were still largely inaccessible by Jeep anyway.
The news of my coming always seemed to precede me. As soon as we had set up camp, the natives would begin arriving with specimens. The government of the Cameroons had issued me with a permit to collect a specific number of specimens in each genera of the primates. Since the Africans hunted most of these species for food, it was easy (as well as ethical) to collect them. If the natives were going to kill and eat an animal anyway, I felt my efforts would not affect the rapidly dwindling populations of these animals. All I needed for my research was the skull, pelvis, and skin; the natives could still have the "beef." Certainly, the benefits to science outweighed other considerations.
I made a very wide circuit of the Batuti, planning to arrive back in Lukemba shortly before the monsoon season. A spacious wattle-and-daub house, built in the colonial style, awaited me there, where I could prepare my specimens and renew my acquaintance with the Mololo of Lukemba. The Mololo was the charming and vivacious leader of the area, a man I'd known since my first trip to the Cameroons as a graduate student.
The baby chimpanzee slipped into this life without even a ripple. When we traveled, I carried her high on my back in a baby carrier provided by one of the camp wives. It was woven from pounded and separated vines, and padded with soft, dry bangi grass, which acted as a kind of diaper. I had to carry her close to my head, because she had conceived a fondness for my hair and clutched fistfuls of it with amazing force, as she would have clung to her mother as she climbed through the trees. Otherwise, she was completely helpless and unable to walk.
At first she was terribly distressed when she was separated from me. Her little arms would wave about and her face would screw up into a wrinkled mask of unhappiness while she made an "oo oo oo" distress call. Baby chimpanzees must cling to their mothers while they climb trees and run along the ground, and as a result evolution had given her a shockingly tenacious grip. Where she held on to my neck or shoulders, tiny bruises developed. Sometimes when I put her down, her hands would wave about and find each other in a crushing clasp. Then she would squeak and cry, unable to understand what was gripping her hands so painfully.
I was deeply attached to the lonely life of the forest, the smell of the ika wood burning, the forest cave about me humming and crackling with the electricity of life. I loved especially the long, soft green light of evening, with only the distant flash of gold in the upper canopy indicating the presence of a sunset. During these evenings, I would sit in my camp chair smoking my pipe, with the chimpanzee nestled in my partly unbuttoned shirt, sleeping quietly, or sucking and pulling on my chest hairs. I have never quite been as contented as I was during those four months in the Batuti forest.
I had made peace with Kwele. I had told him that the little chimpanzee was a very rare specimen indeed, for which fifty shillings was an absurdly low price. The poor ignorant bush hunter men had been royally snookered. Kwele was to be congratulated. It was terribly important to keep the specimen alive, I said, and to that end I was putting Kwele in charge of it, with a salary supplement equal to the gravity of his new responsibility.
As I had anticipated, Kwele immediately subcontracted out the work of caring for the chimpanzee to two of the camp wives, paying them only a fraction of his supplement, and loudly directing every operation with imperious gestures and references to the terrible anger of the Masa should any mistakes be made. The two women took excellent care of the chimpanzee, treating her just like a child, heating her milk, feeding her every four hours. When the chimp began to look peaked they had a discussion and found her a wet nurse — a woman whose own baby had died of diarrhea. The chimp seemed to thrive on human milk, although I could not overcome my astonishment at seeing an animal sucking for all she was worth at a human breast, clamoring and pawing around and raising a racket whenever she felt deprived of the tit.
Excerpted from Jennie by Douglas Preston. Copyright © 1994 Douglas Preston. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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