by Steven L. Peck
It was the escape of the dog-faced baboon that first launched me into the more peaceful enterprise of entomology. Oddly enough, even now, I find myself longing for the nuanced thrill of sneaking into the beast’s cage—the rank smell of musk and urine reminding me that mortality’s end (or eternity’s beginning) sat sleeping uneasily only a too-loud-a-footstep away. In those days I was a short sentence man, writing with curt, sudden jabs that poked through the ambivalent second-guessing that surrounds, or rather defines, our post-modern confusion and timid uncertainty. The baboon knew something remarkable, of that I was sure (see, even today short sentences sneak through like a bedraggled man returning to a theater line, where his wife was left standing as he drove through blocks of crowded streets looking for a place to park).
The truth is this: during the day, the beast would stare contemplatively—confidently wise—its eyes searching my face, penetrating my soul (or at least some biological subset thereof) and then magnificently, slowly, with deliberate aloofness, nod knowingly. Its slowly closing eyes calling to mind a Buddhist monk bringing his day’s teaching to a close. Through the glass in the ape pavilion I tried to talk with this prisoner of modern zoological fancy, but it would fain indifference and disdainfully move on all fours to the furthest corner of its enclosure. There it would nonchalantly gnaw a stick of sugarcane; leaving me alone to ponder the growing certainty that this monkey was patiently waiting to tell me something resplendent; an idea perhaps bigger than the solar system, maybe even bigger than the galaxy (I dared not extrapolate the idea further (for such mistakes are often fatal (or, as all things are temporary (except perhaps the generations of Antarctic flies that have bred there secretly since the break up of Gondwanaland) I mean immediately deadly) to the sane (did I mention I am indeed quite stable? (Quite stable.))) and would go no further—even if my mind had allowed it); I knew that I had to discover what was locked away in the beast’s silent eyes. Those eyes I found so beguiling and unfathomable.
The first attempt was on a night when the moon was as full as a plate of Antonio’s steaming spaghetti, with garlic sauce (and not too heavy on the cheese)—it is then that the guards are most easily avoided. Convinced that they can see any ill, they stand in little groups talking, glancing around occasionally, all the while finding comfort in one another’s boredom. Why do they need comfort? Because at night the zoo comes alive with unearthly calls, moans, grunts, hacks, snorts, cackles, hoots, barks, cries, clicks, roars, peeps, slurps, yells and a hundred other voices that do not belong in the city and condemn it with their unrepentant music.
With the silence of a blue-bellied lizard stalking a tenebrionid beetle in the lonely desert of the Southwest (A living room motif I despise), I crept over a wall, through an enclosure filled with timid and frightened flamingos. Stealing on, I launched myself to the corrugated roof of the ape pavilion, where a quick and expert repel brought me into the beast’s cage. The untroubled creature slept through it all, and I, too awed to bring it from its dreams of freedom, left without awaking it from its night visions. I returned—again annoying the flamingos, forcing them to grudgingly stand on two legs as their heads rose derisively from under their wings.
Later, I tried again. On the second attempt, the story was no different, except the moon was blocked by thick clouds left over from a summer thunder shower, forcing the guards to be more alert, while the flamingos took less notice. And the baboon? It was sleeping badly; the thunder reminded it of carefree days spent playing in the savannah of Tanzania, capering near its caring mother’s vocalizations.
I remember nothing of the moon on the third try, nor of the up-side down smile of the flamingoes, nor even of the bored and sleepy guards, marching methodically down deserted trails, which glowed like miniature runways in the light of diminutive electric lanterns; I only remember standing in the cage staring into the cool black eyes of the wakeful animal, finally consciously aware of my benign intrusion. It moved to the corner of the concrete enclosure, opposite where I stood, my hands shaking and my lungs working like those of a mouse in the talons of an owl. It stared at me, its head tilted to make sense of my place, the motion tempting me into thinking it would share the secret that had brought me in daylight again and again and again and again to the window of its incarceration. Now in the intimacy of night, I squatted down and in a voice of humility and supplication begged to begin training. Like the humble inductee of a pagan temple, I moved to my knees and with head lowered implored, with deep sincerity, to be allowed to take him as my master and teacher. Suddenly, speaking in long intelligible sentences (much like I am trying to master now), and after emphasizing each point by slapping the floor with his open hands, he began a series of low grunts and menacing howls and barks; the message of which my uncomprehending ears could not grasp—so unfathomable and poignant their occult meaning.
In anger and frustration at my stupidity, he rushed at me as I tried to flee up the rope, but he took the end and shook it with such violence that I was forced to jump back onto the floor of his straw-filled enclosure. He never looked at me again, but in a flickering instant shuttled up the very rope from which I had fallen. He also took the rope with him to the top, stranding me—by accident or design I cannot tell. He then so entirely disappeared that neither the police, nor the sheriff’s office, nor the division of animal control, nor Dr. Tillman of the University Center for Primate Studies, nor the zoo, nor Madame Bornatelli from the Psychic Hotline, nor Chett the purebred bloodhound from the State Prison System, nor neighborhood kids in five cities, nor the Channel 5 News helicopter, nor the tracker Mike Singing Eagle, ever found him.
People from all over the state claim to have seen him—stealing dog food; or traveling in a Winnebago (sometimes with one of the Beach Boys); some have caught a fleeting glimpse of him crossing a lonely stretch of highway on starry nights, just as a fading radio station is being lost to increasing interference and the search for a new channel has begun and weary eyes catch a motion as they gaze up from the dashboard; others have heard his listless bark as they sit near a campfire in which the coals have burned low and a passing chill invites thoughts of a warm sleeping bag, and a desire for sleep encroaches on the dying flame; or sometimes the escapee is marked as an explanation of a downed clothes line or overturned garbage can.
All I know is I was left alone to ponder my inept unworthiness at ever grasping the extraordinary secrets that might have been imparted, were I a more fit candidate or more aptly prepared supplicant. But, it was then, as I sat bathed in regret, that I saw the roaches, sitting thoughtfully just out of reach on the rough surface of the cinder blocks that fashioned my new-found prison. Their dark faceted eyes were alight with the glow of the street lamps that patterned the walls light and dark like the hard lines of a cubist painting, perhaps a Gris or a Braque (you can choose) and cast deep shadows that enlarged the presence of the silent insects and gave them a existential heft far beyond the simple contours defined by their chitinous body. Their gracious antennae flit like the baton of a conductor playing freely with an orchestra (constrained nether by score nor budget), which gave them an air of courage and freedom that not even this frightful gulag could contain. It came to me then, like a comet from the heavens, or a motorcycle policeman from behind the sign, or even a salesman at an electronics store, that the baboon had been nothing more than a vehicle for a greater wisdom; a mere pointer to greater depth. The ape was only a vessel filled from a fountain of more subtle purity—a springboard to an even higher consciousness, of which the simian had been nothing but a pupil, a novice, a beginner. It was in these great winged insects that the great secrets were hidden, where the knowledge of the universe began! I clapped my hands in delight, all the while recognizing that I was setting out on a more difficult sojourn than communicating with the baboon had ever promised to be.
I sat and thought until the next morning when I was found, arrested, and released, but as I cradled my shoe which secreted the timid blattids, (and which no one moved to take from me (neither did anyone seem to care that I preferred to walk with only one shoe on my foot)) I felt the birth of a new and higher quest.
This clearly answers Question Four, “Why do you want to pursue graduate study in entomology?” Question five: “What made you choose our entomology program?” Is far more complex and has less to do with the dog-faced baboon than with my dreams of smelting precious metals and your school’s name spelled backwards using the Cyrillic alphabet and held to a mirror upon which the roaches love to dance.
Steven L. Peck has published three novels: The Scholar of Moab, Torrey House Press, awarded AML Best Novel of 2011, and a Montaigne Medal Finalist; A Short Stay in Hell, Strange Violin Editions; and Rifts of Rime, Cedar Fort Press. His speculative short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous venues including, Bellowing Ark, Daily Science Fiction, H.M.S. Beagle, The Journal Of Unlikely Entomology, Pedestal Magazine, Silver Blade, Tales of the Talisman, and Warp and Weave. His poem, “The five known sutras of mechanical man,” was nominated for the 2011 Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award. More about his work can be found at http://stevenlpeck.weebly.com/index.html.
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