Question Four

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

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