Reproduced with permission from Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
The plane had yet to take off, but Osgood, the photographer,
was already snoring softly. He was in the center seat,
wedged between John Thigpen and a woman in coffee-colored
stockings and sensible shoes. He listed heavily toward the latter,
who, having alreadymade a great point of lowering the armrest,
was progressively becoming one with the wall. Osgood was
blissfully unaware. John glanced at him with a pang of envy;
their editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer was loath to spring for
hotels and had insisted that they complete their visit to theGreat
Ape Language Lab in a single day. And so, despite seeing in the
New Year the night before, John, Cat, and Osgood had all been
on the 6 a.m. flight to Kansas City that same morning. John
would have loved to close his eyes for a few minutes, even at the
risk of accidentally cozying up to Osgood, but he needed to
expand his notes while the details were fresh.
John’s knees did not fit within his allotted space, so he turned
them outward into the aisle. Because Cat was behind him,
reclining his seat was not an option. He was well aware of her
mood. She had an entire rowto herself—an unbelievable stroke of
luck—but she had just asked the flight attendant for two gins and
a tonic.Apparently having three seats to herselfwas not enough to
offset the trauma of having spent her day poring over linguistics
texts when she had been expecting to meet six great apes.
Although she’d tried to disguise the symptoms of her cold ahead
of time and explain away the residual as allergies, Isabel Duncan,
the scientist who had greeted them, sussed her out immediately
and banished her to the Linguistics Department. Cat had turned
on her legendary charm,which she reserved for only themost dire
of circumstances, but Isabel had been like Teflon. Bonobos and
humans share 98.7 percent of theirDNA, she’d said,whichmakes
them susceptible to the same viruses. She couldn’t risk exposing
them, particularly as one was pregnant. Besides, the Linguistics
Department had fascinating new data on the bonobos’ vocalizations.
And so a disappointed, sick, and frustrated Cat spent the
afternoon at Blake Hall hearing about the dynamic shape and
movement of tongues while John and Osgood visited the apes.
“You were behind glass anyway, right?” Cat complained in
the taxi afterward. She was crammed between John and
Osgood, both of whom kept their heads turned toward their
respective windows in a futile attempt to avoid germs. “I don’t
see how I could have given them anything from behind glass. I
would have stood at the back of the room if she’d asked me.
Hell, I’d have worn a gas mask.” She paused to snort Afrin up
both nostrils and then honked mightily into a tissue. “Do you
have any idea what I went through today?” she continued.
“Their lingo is completely incomprehensible. I was already
in trouble at ‘discourse.’ Next thing I knew it was ‘declarative
illocutionary point’ this, ‘deonticmodality’ that, blah blah blah.”
She emphasized the “blahs” with her hands, waving the Afrin
bottle in one and the crumpled tissue in the other. “I almost lost
it on ‘rank lexical relation.’ Sounds like a smelly, overly chatty
uncle, doesn’t it? How on earth do they think I’m going to be
able to work that into a newspaper piece?”
John and Osgood exchanged a silent, relieved glance when
they got their seat assignments for the trip home. John didn’t
know Osgood’s take on today’s experience—they hadn’t had a
moment alone—but for John, something massive had shifted.
He’d had a two-way conversation with great apes.He’d spoken
to them in English, and they’d responded using American
Sign Language, all the more remarkable because it meant they
were competent in two human languages. One of the apes,
Bonzi, arguably knew three: she was able to communicate by
computer using a specially designed set of lexigrams. John also
hadn’t realized the complexity of their native tongue—during
the visit, the bonobos had clearly demonstrated their ability to
vocalize specific information, such as flavors of yogurt and locations
of hidden objects, even when unable to see each other.
He’d looked into their eyes and recognized without a shadow of
a doubt that sentient, intelligent beings were looking back. It
was entirely different from peering into a zoo enclosure, and it
changed his comprehension of the world in such a profound
way he could not yet articulate it.
Being cleared by Isabel Duncan was only the first step in getting
inside the apes’ living quarters. After Cat’s banishment to
BlakeHall, Osgood and John were taken into an administrative
office to wait while the apes were consulted. John had been told
ahead of time that the bonobos had final say over who came into
their home, and also that they’d been known to be fickle: over
the past two years, they’d allowed in only about half of their
would-be visitors. Knowing this, John had stacked his odds as
much as possible. He researched the bonobos’ tastes online and
bought a backpack for each, which he stuffed with favorite
foods and toys—bouncy balls, fleece blankets, xylophones, Mr.
Potato Heads, snacks, and anything else he thought they might
find amusing. Then he emailed Isabel Duncan and asked her to
tell the bonobos he was bringing surprises. Despite his efforts,
John found that his forehead was beaded with sweat by the time
Isabel returned from the consultation and informed him that
not only were the apes allowing Osgood and him to come in,
they were insisting.
She led them into the observation area, which was separated
from the apes by a glass partition. She took the backpacks, disappeared
into a hallway, reappeared on the other side of the
glass, and handed them to the apes. John and Osgood stood
watching as the bonobos unpacked their gifts. John was so close
to the partition his nose and forehead were touching it. He’d almost
forgotten it was there, so when the M&M’s surfaced and
Bonzi leapt up to kiss himthrough the glass, he nearly fell backward.
Although John already knew that the bonobos’ preferences
varied (for example, he knewMbongo’s favorite food was green
onions and that Sam loved pears), he was surprised by how distinct,
how differentiated, how almost human, they were: Bonzi,
the matriarch and undisputed leader, was calm, assured, and
thoughtful, if unnervingly fond ofM&M’s. Sam, the oldestmale,
was outgoing and charismatic, and entirely certain of his own
magnetism. Jelani, an adolescentmale, was an unabashed showoff
with boundless energy and a particular love of leaping up
walls and then flipping over backward. Makena, the pregnant
one, was Jelani’s biggest fan, but was also exceedingly fond of
Bonzi and spent long periods grooming her, sitting quietly and
picking through her hair, with the result that Bonzi was balder
than the others. The infant, Lola, was indescribably cute and
also a stitch—John witnessed her yank a blanket out from
under Sam’s head while he was resting and then come barreling
over to Bonzi for protection, signing, bad surprise! bad surprise!
(According to Isabel, messing with another bonobo’s nest
was a major transgression, but there was another rule that
trumped it: in their mothers’ eyes, bonobo babies could do no
wrong.) Mbongo, the other adult male, was smaller than Sam
and of amore sensitive nature: he opted out of further conversations
with John after John unwittingly misinterpreted a game
called Monster Chase. Mbongo put on a gorilla mask, which
was John’s cue to act terrified and letMbongo chase him. Unfortunately,
nobody had told John, who didn’t even realize
Mbongo was wearing a mask until the ape gave up and pulled it
off, at which point John laughed. This was so devastating that
Mbongo turned his back and flatly refused to acknowledge John
from that point forward. Isabel eventually cheered him up by
playing the game properly, but he declined to interact with John
for the rest of the visit, which left John feeling as if he’d slapped
John looked up to find a man standing in the aisle, unable to
move past John’s legs. John shifted sideways and wrangled them
into Osgood’s space, which elicited a grunt. When the man
passed, John returned his legs to the aisle and as he did so caught
sight of a woman three rows up holding a book whose familiar
cover shot a jolt of adrenaline through him. It was his wife’s
debut novel, although she had recently forbidden him from
using that particular phrase since it was beginning to look as
though her debut novel was also going to be her last. Back when
The River Wars first came out and John and Amanda were still
feeling hopeful, they had coined the phrase “a sighting in the
wild” to describe finding some randomperson in the act of reading
it. Until this moment it had been theoretical. John wished
Amanda had been the one to experience it. She was in desperate
need of cheering up, and he’d very nearly concluded that he was
helpless in that department. John checked for the location of the
flight attendant. She was in the galley, so he whipped out his cell
phone, rose slightly out of his seat, and snapped a picture.
The drinks cart returned; Cat bought more gin, John ordered
coffee, and Osgood continued to rumble subterraneously
while his human cushion glowered.
John got out his laptop and started a new file:
Similar to chimpanzees in appearance but with slimmer
build, longer limbs, flatter brow ridge. Black or dusky gray
faces, pink lips. Black hair parted down the center. Expressive
eyes and faces.High-pitched and frequent vocalizations.
Matriarchal, egalitarian, peaceful. Extremely amorous. Intense
Although John had known something of the bonobos’
demonstrative nature, he had been initially caught off-guard at
the frequency of their sexual contact, particularly between females.
A quick genital rub seemed as casual as a handshake.
There were predictable occurrences, such as immediately before
sharing food, butmostly there was no rhyme or reason that John
John sipped his coffee and considered. What he really
needed to do was transcribe the interview with Isabel while he
could still recall and annotate the non-aural details: her expressions
and gestures, and the moment—unexpected and lovely—
when she’d broken into ASL.He plugged his earphones into his
voice recorder, and began:
ID: So this is the part where we talk about me?
ID: [nervous laugh] Great. Can we talk about someone else
JT: Nope. Sorry.
ID: I was afraid of that.
JT: So what made you get into this type of work?
ID: I was taking a class with Richard Hughes—he’s the
one who founded the lab—and he talked a little about
the work he was doing. I was utterly fascinated.
JT: He passed away recently, didn’t he?
ID: Yes. [pause] Pancreatic cancer.
JT: I’m sorry.
ID: Thank you.
JT: So anyway, this class.Was it linguistics? Zoology?
ID: Psychology. Behavioral psychology.
JT: Is that what your degree is in?
ID: My first one. I think originally I thought it might help
me understand my family—wait, can you please
JT: Scratch what?
ID: That bit about my family. Can you take it out?
8 S A R A G R U E N
JT: Sure. No problem.
ID: [makes gesture of relief ] Whew. Thanks. Okay, so basically
I was this aimless first-year kid taking a psychology
class, and I heard about the ape project and I went,
and after I met the apes I couldn’t imagine doing anything
else with my life. I can’t really describe it adequately.
I begged and pleaded with Dr. Hughes to be
allowed to do something, anything. I would mop
floors, clean toilets, do laundry, just to be near them.
They just . . . [long pause, faraway look] . . . I don’t know
if I can say what it is. It just . . . is. I felt very strongly
that this was where I belonged.
JT: So he let you.
ID: Not quite. [laughs] He told me that if I took a comprehensive
linguistics course over the summer, read all his
work, and came back to him fluent in ASL he’d think
JT: And did you?
ID: [seems surprised] Yeah. I did. It was the hardest summer
of my life. That’s like telling someone to go off and become
fluent in Japanese over four months. ASL is not
simply signed English—it’s a unique language, with a
unique syntax. It’s usually time-topic-comment-oriented,
although like English, there’s variability. For instance,
you could say [starts signing], “Day-past me eat
cherries,” or you could say, “Day-past eat cherries me.”
But that is not to say that ASL doesn’t also use the subject-
verb-object structure; it simply doesn’t use “stateof-
JT: You’re losing me.
ID: [laughs] Sorry.
JT: So you came back, you blew him out of the water, and
you got the job.
ID: I don’t know about blowing him out of the water . . .
JT: Tell me about the apes.
ID: What about them?
A P E H O U S E 9
JT: Seeing you with them today, and then speaking with
them myself, and then managing to actually insult one
of them—that was an eye-opener.
ID: He got over it.
JT: No. He didn’t. But do you understand how strange
that whole thing would seemto your average, everyday
person? The concept that you can insult an animal in a
social situation and have to make it up to him? And
possibly fail? That you can have a two-way conversation
with apes, in human language no less, and they’re
doing it simply because they want to?
ID: By Jove, I think he’s got it!
JT: I suppose I had that coming.
ID: I’m sorry. But yes, that’s the entire point of our work.
Apes acquire language through exposure and a desire
to communicate, just like human infants, and age-wise
there is approximately the same window of opportunity.
Although I’d like to branch out a little going forward.
JT: How so?
ID: Bonobos have their own language. You saw that
today—Sam told Bonzi exactly where he’d hidden the
key, even though they were in separate rooms and
couldn’t see each other. She went straight for it and
never looked anywhere else. We may never be able to
use their vocalizations to communicate with them for
the same reasons they can’t use spoken English—our
vocal tracts are shaped too differently, which we think
is related to the HAR1 gene sequence, but I think it’s
high time someone made an attempt to decode it.
JT: About the sex.
ID: What about it?
JT: There’s just so much of it. And they’re so . . . virtuosic.
It’s clearly not just about procreation.
ID: Absolutely right. Bonobos—along with dolphins and
10 S A R A G R U E N
humans—are the only animals known to have recreational
JT: Why do they do that?
ID: Why do you do it?
JT: Uh . . . Okay. Moving right along.
ID: I’msorry. That’s a fair question.We believe it’s amechanism
to relieve tension, resolve conflict, and reaffirm
friendship, although it also has to do with the size of
the females’ clitorises and that they are sexually receptive
regardless of estrus.Whether this shapes or reflects
bonobo culture is a matter of scientific debate, but there
are several related factors: food is abundant in their
natural habitat, which means the females aren’t in
competition to feed their babies. They form strong
friendships and band together to “correct” aggressive
males, thus keeping those genes from entering the
pool, and so, unlike chimpanzees, male bonobos do not
practice infanticide.Maybe it’s because nomale has any
idea which babies are his, or maybe it’s because the
males who are allowed to breed don’t care and that
trait is passed along. Or maybe it’s because the females
would rip him to shreds. Like I said, it’s a matter of
JT: Do you think the apes know they’re apes, or do they
think they’re human?
ID: They know they’re apes, but I don’t think it means
what you think it does.
ID: They know they’re bonobos and they know we’re
human, but it doesn’t imply mastery, or superiority, or
anything of the sort.We are, all of us, collaborators.We
are, in fact, family.
John clicked off his voice recorder and closed the lid of his
laptop. He’d have loved to follow up on the family thing, but
since she’d backtracked immediately he left it alone. It was also
interesting that she’d later called the bonobos her family.Maybe
he could coax her into opening up in a follow-up interview.
They’d definitely made a connection—a connection that he
worried might have crossed over into flirtation at one point,
although with each passing mile he felt better about that. She
was unquestionably attractive, slim-hipped and athletic with
straight blond hair that fell almost to her waist, but her charm
was frank and earnest: she wore no makeup or jewelry of any
kind, and John doubted she recognized her own appeal.
Friendly is what they’d been; maybe she’d eventually trust him
with her messy family history. It was the sort of detail readers
loved, although this piece already promised to have plenty of
those. She’d made another interesting comment when she put
on the gorilla mask and gave a proper demonstration of Monster
Chase. After she “caught”Mbongo, they’d rolled around on
the floor tickling each other and laughing (hers was full and
high-pitched, his a nearly silent wheezing, but the expression on
his face left no question that it was laughter). John was shocked
at the level of roughhousing going on, having been given to believe
that working with great apes was extremely dangerous.
Even though he’d read that bonobos were different, he hadn’t
expected her to be so physicalwith them.His surprisemust have
been evident, because when she stopped she said, “Over the
years, they’ve become more human, and I’ve become more
bonobo,” and in that moment he’d felt a flash of understanding,
like he’d been allowed to peek briefly through the crack.
Isabel leaned through the doorway, her eyes scanning the dinner
carts. Only two-year-old Lola reacted to her presence,
glancing briefly in her direction. She was tiny, as bonobo babies
are, and clung to Bonzi’s chest and neck, alternately mouthing
her mother’s nipple and letting it slide from her lips.
The bonobos lolled on the floor in nests of carefully arranged
blankets,watchingGreystoke:TheLegend ofTarzan,Lord of the Apes.
Bonzi was more precise about her nest than the others—she
always used exactly six blankets, swirling them over each other
and folding the edges under so there was a soft rim all the way
around. Isabel, who was prone to a certain precision herself,
loved watching Bonzi poke and fiddle with her nest, which had
to be just so before she’d invite Lola in, slapping her hands to
her chest and signing, baby come.
Jelani andMakena lay head to head on their blankets, reaching
up with lazy and long-fingered hands to examine each
other’s faces and chests and rid each other of imaginary bugs.
When John Clayton, Seventh Earl of Greystoke, slid Miss Jane
Porter’s filmy nightdress off her shoulders, they tipped up their
chins and exchanged a languorous kiss.
Sam sprawled on his back with an arm behind his head and
one leg crossed over the other. His foot bobbed, and he worked
a watermelon rind, scraping the last of the sweet flesh off with
his teeth. Mbongo had set up his nest across the room and
wrapped a blanket firmly around his new backpack to keep
Sam from noticing its suspicious girth. Mbongo had punctured
his own bouncy ball almost immediately, and so had “borrowed”
Sam’s.Mbongo flashed impressive canines, his gaze flitting
nervously between Sam and his precious blanketed lump.
He lifted a corner of the fleece and peered beneath, then hurriedly
tucked the blanket back around it. He was enjoying his
secret too visibly. It wouldn’t be long before Sam noticed.
Notwishing to disturbmovie time, Isabel said nothing as she
retrieved the empty carts. She rolled them out one by one and
passed them off to Celia, a nineteen-year-old magenta-haired
intern. When all the carts were in the kitchen, the two of them
began to clear the remains of dinner. Celia stacked the plastic
soup bowls while Isabel scooped up peels and stems, dumping
the fruit and vegetable detritus into the disposal and running
water over her hands.
Celia finally broke the silence. “So how did the big visit go
“It was good,” said Isabel. “Lots of conversations. Lots of
great pictures—the photographer’s camera was digital so I’ve
already seen a bunch.”
“Anyone we know?”
“They’re from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Cat Douglas and
John Thigpen. They’re finishing a series on great apes.”
Celia snorted. “Catwoman and Pigpen! Love it. So what did
the apes think?”
“I only let John in. She had a virus, so I sent her over to Linguistics
“David and Eric were here? On New Year’s Day?”
“They have a fancy newspectrumanalyzer. There’s no keeping
them away from it.”
“And how did that go?”
Isabel smiled at the plate she was holding. “Let’s just say I
owe them one. That woman is a real piece of work.”
“Ha! Did Pigpen know ASL?”
“His name is John. And no. I translated their responses.”
After a moment’s pause, she added, “Mostly.”
One of Celia’s pierced eyebrows rose.
“Mbongo called him a ‘dirty bad toilet’ at one point,” Isabel
explained. “I may have paraphrased that one a little.”
Celia laughed. “And what did he do to deserve that?”
“A game of Monster Chase gone hideously wrong.”
Celia picked up a plastic dish and held it at various angles,
trying to determine whether it had been washed or licked clean.
“In Pigpen’s defense, Monster Chase is hard to do through
“It was much worse than that. But we showed him how it’s
done,” said Isabel. “Monster Chase, Monster Tickle, Apple
Chase, we did it all. Much to the delight of the photographer.”
“Did Peter come in today?”
Well, that was a hard left turn, thought Isabel, stealing a quick
look at Celia. The girl stared into the sink, the corner of her lip
lifted into a smirk. Apparently Dr. Benton had become “Peter”
to the intern at some point over the last twenty-four hours.
“No. I haven’t seen him,” Isabel said carefully.
At the previous night’s New Year’s Eve party, Isabel had
been uncharacteristically thrown for a loop by a sorry excuse for
dinner (four tiny cubes of cheese) and three strong cocktails
(“It’s a Glenda Bendah!” the host, and husband of Glenda, had
exclaimed as he thrust a glass of the iced blue concoction into
her hands). Isabel didn’t normally drink—had in fact just
purchased her first bottle of vodka so she’d have something on
hand to offer guests—but this was the first social gathering of
the people involved with the Great Ape Language Lab since
Richard Hughes’s death, and everyone was working hard at the
appearance of being merry. It was exhausting. Isabel tried to
keep up, but when she staggered into the powder room and encountered
her own flushed, intoxicated face in the mirror, she
saw something even more frightening than the gorilla mask in
Monster Chase was supposed to be: she saw an earlier version of
her mother, weaving and pale. Isabel was unused to wearing
makeup and had somehow managed to smear lipstick up one
cheek. Sections of hair stuck like twigs from her updo. She
ditched the remains of her third Glenda Bendah in the sink, dissolved
the blue-tinged ice cubes in running water, and tried to
creep out before she could embarrass herself further. Peter, who
was not only Dr. Hughes’s successor but also Isabel’s fiancé,
found her in the lobby in stockinged feet, slumped against the
wall with her high-heeled shoes dangling from a thumb.When
she looked up and saw him, she burst into tears.
He crouched next to her. He held a hand to her forehead.
His eyes filled with concern. He went back upstairs and returned
with a moist, cool cloth, which he pressed to her cheeks.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he said moments later, helping
her into a taxi. “Let me come with you.”
“I’m fine,” she said, and promptly leaned out of the car to be
sick. The cabdriver observed this with alarm through the
rearview mirror. Peter lifted the hems of his pants to inspect his
shoes and leaned forward to examine Isabel more thoroughly.
His eyebrows formed a lopsided V beneath a series of wavy
lines. He paused, and then decided.
“I’m coming with you,” he declared. “Wait while I get my
“No, really, I’mfine.” She groped through her purse for a tissue,
beyond mortified. She couldn’t stand for him to see her like
this. “Stay,” she insisted, waving a hand in the general direction
of the party. “Really. I’ll be fine. Stay and ring in theNew Year.”
“Are you sure?”
“Completely.” She sniffed, nodded, and straightened her
He watched amoment longer and said, “Drink lots of water.
And take Tylenol.”
She nodded. Even in her inebriated state, she could tell that
he was considering whether to kiss her. She took mercy on him,
pulled the door shut on her taffeta dress, and waved the driver
Isabel had no idea what happened after she left. The party
hadn’t quite reached the lampshade stage, but that was certainly
the trajectory—veiled grief, an endless supply of alcohol, and
resentment on the part of a select few over Peter’s appointment
made for a strange and unpredictable atmosphere. Peter had
been at the lab for only a year, and there were some who felt the
position should have gone to a person with a longer investment
in the project.
Nearly twenty hours later, Isabel still felt wretched. She
leaned her belly against the edge of the counter and snuck another
fleeting glance at Celia, whose shoulder-to-wrist tattoos
were displayed in full glory because she was wearing an orange
“Peace” tank over a bright purple bra—in January. It wouldn’t
surprise Isabel at all if Celia had attempted a bit of political maneuvering
at the party. A little dancing, a little flirting, maybe
even sidling up to Peter when the ball dropped, angling for a
Isabel sighed. It wasn’t as if she could take it personally: her
relationship with Peter was not yet public. He had proposed
only a few days earlier, after an accelerated and passionate
courtship—Isabel had never fallen so fast and so hard—but for
various reasons, including an ongoing and rancorous custody
battle with his ex-wife and concern over how it would be perceived
by the department, he felt it best to keep things quiet
until they moved in together. Besides which, although Celia apparently
had no idea, Peter disliked her.
“What?” Celia stopped digging vegetable peelings out of the
bottom of the sink and glanced down the length of her arm.
Isabel realized she’d been staring at the tattoos. She turned
her eyes back to the dishes. “Nothing. I just have a headache.”
Bonzi rounded the corner and ambled up to them. Lola rode
on her back, jockey-style, tiny fingers laced over her mother’s
Celia looked over her shoulder and called out, “Bonzi, did
you try to kiss the visitor?”
Bonzi grinned gleefully and spun on her behind, propelling
herself with her feet. She touched her fingers to her lips and
then her cheek, twice, before crossing both hands over her chest,
signing, kiss kiss bonzi love.
Celia laughed. “And what about Mbongo? Did he also love
Bonzi considered for amoment and thenwiggled her fingers
beneath her chin and swept her hand downward, signing, dirty
bad! dirty bad!
“Did Mbongo think the visitor was a dumbass?” continued
Celia, stacking clean plates.
“Celia!” Isabel barked. “Language!”
This was precisely why Peter had been unhappy when
Richard Hughes had bestowed the coveted internship on Celia
over a half-dozen other deserving candidates. He was worried
about her colorful language. If one of the bonobos picked up an
offensive phrase and used it the requisite number of times in
proper context, it would have to be included in the official lexicon.
It was one thing when a bonobo came up with an insult like
“dirty bad toilet” on his own, and quite another to acquire
“dumbass” from a human.
Although Bonzi had been conversing with Celia, she was
now looking intently at Isabel. Her expression shifted to worry.
smile hug, she signed. bonzi love visitor, kiss kiss.
“Don’tworry, Bonzi. I’mnotmad at you,” Isabel said, speaking
and signing simultaneously. She threw an accusatory glare
in Celia’s direction to drive her point home. “Don’t you want to
watch the rest of the movie?”
“Sure, I can make coffee.”
want candy coffee. isabel go. hurry gimme.
Isabel laughed and assumed a posture ofmock offense. “You
don’t like my coffee?”
Bonzi sat on her haunches, looking sheepish. Lola climbed
over her shoulder and blinked at Isabel.
“Touché. Neither do I,” Isabel conceded. “You want a
Bonzi yipped excitedly. good drink. go hurry, said her
“Okay. You want marshmallow on that?” said Isabel, using
Bonzi’s term for the sweet froth on the top.
smile smile, hug hug.
Isabel threw the damp dish towel over her shoulder and
wiped her still-clammy hands on her thighs.
“You want me to go?” Celia said.
“Sure. Thanks.” Isabel was surprised by the offer, and also
grateful, on account of her lingering headache. Celia’s shift had
technically ended almost a quarter of an hour earlier. “I’ll finish
Celia waited as Isabel lined the carts up against the wall.
“Ahem,” she said finally.
Isabel looked up. “What?”
“Can I take your car? Mine’s in the shop.”
Mystery solved. Isabel nearly laughed out loud. Celiawanted
a ride home at the end of the night.
Isabel patted her pockets until a lump jingled.
grab picture, said Bonzi.
“Take the video camera,” Isabel said, tossing the keys in a
perfect arc. “Andmake sure you ask for decaf. And skimmilk.”
Celia nodded and snatched the keys from the air.
All the bonobos—but especially Bonzi—loved watching
videos of humans carrying out their requests. The bonobos used
to ride along on limited errands, but all that stopped two years
ago on the day Bonzi decided to steer the car and nearly
wrapped it around a telephone pole. She’d simply reached
across and grabbed the steering wheel. Isabel managed to brake
before impact, but not before running off the road. This hap-
pened less than a week after Dr. Hughes’s car was swarmed at a
McDonald’s drive-through when the driver of a passenger van
in front of them glanced in his rearview mirror and spied
Mbongo—who had successfully talked his way into a rare and
cherished cheeseburger—riding shotgun. Moments later adults
and children alike mobbed the car screaming, “Monkey! Monkey!”
while trying to thrust their arms through the windows.
Mbongo’s response was to dive beneath the backseat as Dr.
Hughes closed the windows, but that, followed by the Bonzisteering
episode, sounded the death knell for public outings.
The bonobosmissed their contact with the outside world (although,
when asked, they were absolutely firm in their belief
that the double electric fence and moat around their outside
play yard was there to keep people and cats out rather than
bonobos in), so now Isabel and the others brought the outside
world to them by video. At this point, the local shopkeepers
thought nothing of being filmed for the viewing pleasure of the
“Try to run over some protesters while you’re at it,” said Isabel.
“There’s nobody out there,” said Celia.
“Really?” said Isabel. There had been a gaggle of protesters
outside the gates every day for almost a year, silently holding
placards that showed great apes undergoing terrible procedures.
Since the protesters obviously had no clue as to the nature of the
work being done at the language lab, Isabel always ignored
Celia opened the viewfinder of the video camera and then
flicked the switch to check its battery. “Larry-Harry-Gary and
Green-Haired Freaky Dude were there before dinner but they
were gone when I went out for a smoke.”
“ ‘Green-Haired Freaky Dude’? This from the girl with hot
“It is not hot pink,” Celia said, fingering a pixie curl in front
of her ear. “It’s fuchsia. And I have nothing against his hair
color. I just think he, himself, is an asshat.”
“Celia! Language!” Isabel whipped her head around and
noted with relief that Bonzi had wandered back into the TV
room, thereby missing this opportunity to enrich her vocabulary.
“You have got to be more careful. I’m serious.”
Celia shrugged. “What? They didn’t hear me.”
Isabel felt her eyes wander over to Celia again. The intern’s
body art fascinated and repulsed Isabel almost equally. A
labyrinthine swirl of nudes and mermaids tumbled down her
shoulders and frolicked along her forearms, their hair and
breasts entwined with the scaly limbs and tails of creatures
borne from hell. A smattering of horseshoes and daisy-eyed
skulls rained down on the whole, which was sharply rendered
in reddish pinks, yellows, purples, and ghostly bluish greens. Isabel
was only eight years older than Celia, but her own brand of
rebellion had been to bury her nose in books and ride the scholarship
train away from home as far and fast as possible.
“Okay. I’m off,” Celia declared, tucking the video camera
under her arm. Isabel went back to the dishes, listening as
Celia’s footsteps receded down the hallway.
A moment later, the door creaked open. Isabel spun on her
heels. “Wait! You do have a valid driver’s—”
The door slammed shut. Isabel stared at it for a moment,
then tucked a bottle of Lubridermunder her armand went in to
watch the end of the movie.
Sam had reasserted ownership of the ball, and Mbongo was
sulking in his nest, the picture of desolation. He wore his new
backpack, whose concave shape betrayed the ball’s absence. His
shoulders slumped forward, and he hugged his arms across his
chest. Isabel knelt beside him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Did Sam take his ball back?” she asked, signing and speaking
at the same time.
Mbongo stared forlornly ahead.
“Do you need a hug?” asked Isabel.
At first he didn’t respond. Then he signed with a flurry: kiss
hug, kiss hug.
Isabel leaned in and took his head in both hands. She kissed
his creased forehead and straightened his long black hair. “Poor
Mbongo,” she said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.
“I’ll tell you what. Tomorrow I’ll get you another ball. But don’t
carry this one in your teeth. Okay?”
The bonobo pulled his lips back in a smile and nodded
“Do you need some oil? Let me check your hands,” said
Isabel, reaching for his arm.
Mbongo obligingly stretched it toward her. Isabel took his
hand and ran her fingers over it. Although the lab had humidifiers
going all the time in the winter, the air still couldn’t compete
with that of the bonobos’ native Congo Basin.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. She squeezed a glob of
Lubriderm onto her palm and massaged it into his long, heavily
As one, the bonobos turned to face the hallway.
“What is it?” Isabel looked from face to face, puzzled.
visitor, signed Bonzi. The rest of the apes remainedmotionless,
their eyes trained on the door.
“No, not a visitor. The visitors left. The visitors are gone,”
The apes continued to stare down the hallway. Sam’s hair
rose until it stood on end, and a pricking like tiny spiders crept
over Isabel’s neck and scalp. She rose and muted the TV.
Finally she heard it—a muffled rustling.
Sam pulled his lips back and screamed, “Whah! Whah!
Whah!” Bonzi scooped baby Lola under her arm, grabbed a
hanging fire hose with the other, and swung onto the lowest
of the platforms that jutted from the walls at various heights.
Makena joined them, grinning nervously, clinging to the other
The rustling stopped, but all eyes—human and ape—
remained on the hallway. After a moment, the rustling was
replaced by a muted jiggling.
Sam’s nostrils flared. He turned to Isabel and signed
urgently, visitor, smoke.
“No, not a visitor. It’s probably just Celia,” Isabel said, although
she couldn’t hide the apprehension in her voice. Celia
hadn’t had time to get the coffee and return. Besides, Celia
would just come in.
Sam stood up and swaggered a few bipedal steps.
The females swung to an even higher perch and backed
against the wall. Mbongo and Jelani darted around the corners
of the room on all fours.
Isabel let herself out through the partition that defined the
bonobos’ inner sanctum and stopped to check that it was locked
behind her. In eight years of daily contact, she’d never seen the
bonobos act like this. Their adrenaline was contagious.
She flicked on the light. The hallway looked as it always did.
The noise, whatever it was, had stopped.
“Celia?” Isabel asked tentatively. There was no answer.
She walked toward the door that led to the parking lot.
When she glanced behind her, Sam galloped silently past the
doorway of the group room, a dark and muscled mass.
Isabel reached for the doorknob and then retracted her
hand. She leaned in close to the door, her forehead nearly touching
“Celia? Is that—”
The explosion blasted the door entirely out of its frame. As it
carried her backward, she processed that she and the door were
being propelled down the hall by a billowing, rolling wall of
fire. She felt lucid and detached, parsing the events as though
examining consecutive frames of a video. Since there was no
time to react, she recorded.
When she slammed into the wall, she noted that her skull
stopped moving before her brain did.When the door came to a
stop against her, trapping her upright, she observed that the left
side of her face—the side she’d had pressed against the door—
took the brunt of the impact.When her eyes filledwith stars and
her mouth with blood, she filed these facts away for future reference.
She watched helplessly as the fireball whooshed past the
door and rolled onward toward the apes.When the door finally
tipped forward and released her, she crumpled to the ground. She
couldn’t breathe, but she did not appear to be on fire.Her eyes shifted to
the empty doorway.
Shadowy figures in black clothes and balaclavas swarmed in and
spread out, strangely, frighteningly silent.
Crowbars swung and glass flew, but the people didn’t speak. It
wasn’t until one of them knelt briefly by her head, with oversized
rubber-band lips mouthing the word “Shit!” that she realized she
couldn’t hear. And still she couldn’t breathe. She fought to keep her eyes
open, fought the crushing weight in her chest.
Black-and-white static, the roar of a million bees interrupted by the
fluttering of her own eyelids. A vision of boots running past her. She lay
on her back with her head tilted to the right. She moved her tongue, fat
as a sea slug, and pushed one, two, and then three teeth from the corner
of her mouth. More static, longer this time. Then blinding light and
crushing pain. She was suffocating. Her eyes drifted shut.
Time passed—how much, she didn’t know—but suddenly she was
being yanked around.An acrid latexed finger swept through hermouth,
and a bright pinpoint of light illuminated the veined landscape of her
inner lids. Her eyes sprung open.
Faces hovered over her, speaking urgently to each other. She heard
them as though through surf. Gloved hands scissored roughly through
her T-shirt and bra. Someone suctioned out her nose and mouth and
covered them both with a mask.
“—respiratory distress. No breath sounds on the left.”
“She has a tracheal shift. Get a line in.”
“I’m in. Any crepitus?”
Fingers massaged her chest. Something inside cracked and popped
like bubble wrap.
Isabel tried to gasp, but succeeded only in producing a raspingwheeze.
“You’re going to be okay,” said the voice attached to the hand attached
to the oxygen mask. “Do you know where you are?”
Isabel tried to inhale, and the pain was like a thousand knives. She
mewed into the mask.
A male face appeared above hers: “You’re going to feel something
cold on your skin. We have to insert a needle to help you
A freezing swipe of antiseptic, a long needle flashing above
her and then down and into her chest. The pain was excruciating,
but accompanied by instant relief. Air hissed through the
needle and her lung reinflated. She could breathe again. She
gasped and sucked so hard the mask inverted against her face.
She clawed at it, but the hand holding it stayed firm, and Isabel
discovered that even though it flattened against her face, it still
delivered oxygen. It stank of PVC, like cheap shower curtains
and the type of bath toys she avoided buying for the bonobos because
she’d read that they exuded fake estrogens when the material
began to break down.
“Get her on a backboard.”
Hands maneuvered her sideways, holding her head, then
eased her onto her back. A radio sputtered in the background.
“We have a female, mid- to late twenties, victim of an explosion.
Tension pneumothorax—needle decompression performed
in the field. Breath sounds present. Facial and oral
trauma. Head injury. Altered level of consciousness. Ready to
evacuate—ETA seventeen minutes.”
She let her eyes drift shut and the bees swarmed again. The
world was spinning, she was nauseated. When the crisp night
air hit her face, her lids snapped open. Each movement of the
gurney was amplified as its wheels crunched through the gravel.
The parking lot was full of flashing lights and sirens. Velcro
straps prevented Isabel from turning her head, so instead she
turned her gaze. Celia was off to the side, screaming and crying
and pleading with firemen to let her past. She was still clutching
a cardboard tray of grande caramel macchiatos. When she
caught sight of the gurney, the tray and drinks splattered to the
ground. The video camera swung from a strap on her wrist.
“Isabel!” shewailed. “OhmyGod! Isabel!” and only then did
Isabel have a concept of what had happened to her.
When the front wheels of the gurney met the back of the
vehicle and folded beneath her, Isabel caught a glimpse of a dark
shadow at the top of a tree, and then another, and then another,
and she bleated into the mask. At least half the bonobos had
made it out.
The ceiling of the ambulance replaced the starry night and
her eyes flickered shut. Someone yanked them open, first one,
and then the other, and shone a light into them. Against the ambulance
interior she saw faces and uniforms and gloved hands,
bags of intravenous fluid and crisscrossing tubes. Voices boomed
and radios hissed and someone was calling her name but she
was helpless against the riptide. She tried to stay with them—it
seemed the polite thing to do, given that they now knew her
name—but she couldn’t. Their voices echoed and swirled as she
sank into a chasm that was beyond the bees and darker than
black. It was the complete absence of everything.