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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.1 (Winter 2015)
Fiction & Humor
King of the Mountain
Peter T. Singleton
My mastery of Chimpanese has naturally made me a constant target of derision. There are those who do not believe at all in my accomplishment and find my claim quite deranged. I understand this response better than the other kind, for I can hardly believe in my linguistic coup myself and have, on occasion, questioned my sanity. But the others, the ones who find my achievement not so much improbable as simply different from the weary norm, strike me as themselves very good approximations of apes in trees—after their understanding of the ape, of course. They more or less accept that I comprehend “monkey chatter”, and they find in my breakthrough ample justification to make childish wisecracks about my ancestry. I could tell them a thing or two about the primitive, “unevolved” tendencies behind their own mobbing of the statistically marginal… but the irony would be wasted upon them, like a Crêpe Suzette upon a wild boar.
When I contemplate their ilk, I almost have to side with the Chimps in considering humans an inferior species.
For you must first know that this is very much the general view among the Congo clans. My hairy contacts have an interesting perspective, indeed, of the human universe rapidly encroaching upon their habitat. I think the unprejudiced, open-minded reader might profit from my transcribing a recent conversation with Nyahmwhum, my most faithful and informative subject.
A middle-aged male who lacks the physique to participate aggressively in mating and other aspects of tribal life, Nyahmwhum is something of an outsider. He was hence relatively easy for me to get to know; and his semi-outcast status has colored his judgments of clan leaders and clan rituals, as one might well imagine, in tones of gloomy blue. We would call him a depressive. As regards his view of humans, though, his sour disdain entirely reflects the party line. If such a sulky fellow as he shows no inclination to romanticize human “otherness” (for doing so could compensate him for being shunned by his own), then I think we may conclude that Chimps one and all hold us in very low esteem.
Nyahmwhum claims that his grandfather’s generation was the first to notice the new forest rising to the southwest. It was a forbidding place, even at a distance. Its mighty but utterly defoliated tree trunks offered no shade, and it was impossible to imagine that they sheltered any food along their sheer flat sides. Oddly, one could see from a lesser distance (for a few of the clan would sometimes venture closer to investigate) abundant pockets of water balanced vertically in their flanks—silvery, brightly shining water. There were various opinions among clan members about why this liquid didn’t simply come splashing down. Some maintained that clear, hard water could be found on the high mountain slopes farther east; but the flat-sided trees, though high, bore no protection from the sun and could hardly had kept the water cool and hard. Others conjectured that the silver patches were outcrops of splendid rock. It was universally known that one could sometimes find bright veins of stone deep within caves: why could the new forest not carry such stones embedded in its dozens of climbing surfaces? Granted, the idea of a tree lifting rocks aloft in its bark seemed strange—but scarcely stranger than the idea of a tree without leaves, or even limbs.
The recently prevailing opinion, though, rejected this view, and for several reasons. These silver sparkles were very regularly spaced and uniformly sized, while stones were never quite the same size even after a river had rounded them for generations. The clincher for the new hypothesis was that the identical sparkle could also be observed in the insects that swarmed about the base of the strange trees at regular hours, especially a little after dawn and a little before dusk. The elevated glints and glimmers could only be these very insects at some stage of maturation. The young had been laid out along the gray bark with the distinctive orderliness that bees imposed upon hives and termites upon mounds. Their bright shells, elevated far aloft, caught the warmth of the tropical sun and allowed them to grow until, at last, they broke free—probably leaving the old shell behind and buzzing about the forest’s bare surface in a more agile new one.
In fact, Nyahmwhum notes that by the time of his early adulthood, the belief that the lean, sleek gray columns to the southwest were trees had begun to wane. It seemed far more likely that these monstrous eyesores were indeed volcano-sized termite mounds, produced by—and producing—a race of super-termites such as the past had never known. To see so much virgin jungle devoured by the mindless, pestilential swarm was deeply painful, but it also conformed to everyone’s understanding of what insects did if left to have their way. My friend’s clan and other speakers of Chimpanese, as you may imagine, were anxiously watching now to see how far this plague of locusts would advance upon the jungle highlands.
Despite their ringing success in comprehending a very curious phenomenon (as they supposed) within just a couple of generations, the Chimps always remained utterly puzzled by one often-repeated observation: the proximity of a degraded species of apes to the monster-termites. For a while, the verdict had been that the native human tribes had been overtaken by the insects, which proceeded to wrap them in silky coverings—as a spider does—prior to transporting them to the great mounds as food for the young. In those days, a certain sympathy had been extended to the poor human victims, though the clans also struggled to understand how even something as slow and stupid as a human could not have escaped the insects. Not that the termites were slow themselves: on the contrary, they were seen several times on the local savannah to have kept pace with herds of impala. But they had very little maneuverability, and none had ever succeeded in sinking its fangs into a Chimpanzee. Their forays on the savannah, for that matter, never brought down any big game at all, since they didn’t know how to pounce. The insects were terrible hunters.
The Chimps so cherished this transparent evidence of their superiority to humans that the “capture, wrap, carry back, and feed” theory enjoyed great currency even during my interviews with Nyahmwhum. He confided to me, however, that a new theory better accounted for closer observations, and would probably win out when the rank and file recognized that it placed humans in a still more despicable light. (Nyahmwhum, as I have suggested, could be a cynical little La Rochefoucauld in his pool of bitterness. I often suspected that his very willingness to talk to me sprang from a sardonic pleasure he took in toying with a degenerate species.) The observations in question all pointed to the fact that humans entered and departed the maws of their captors at will. They were not supper, but rather a body of eager slaves. The elders of the clan could scarcely believe that the human tribesmen they had known from yesteryear—though weaklings and cowards, one and all—would do anything so desperate as to assist the Swarm in its annihilating advance upon Mother Jungle. To the younger Chimps, the facts spoke for themselves. The humans had “gone over”: they were now insectified. Whether they had made the switch willingly or been injected with some mind-altering poison was anybody’s guess. The very interesting detail of their being enveloped in spider’s web could certainly support some speculation that they had been processed; and even more suggestive, some of them entirely lost their color and became deathly pale… like me!
I cannot imagine that Nyahmwhum would not have wanted to ask me directly about so many theories. His manner, nevertheless, was to launch remarks of the sort I have just reported and then watch me closely for a reaction. Perhaps he reasoned that my verbal responses were not to be trusted, and so the best evidence could only be indirect evidence. I’m more of the belief, though, that his unusual personality came into play here. He would have had to demonstrate a degree of real concern about life and truth if he were to press me for information; and, in the self-pitying state wherein he languished during our acquaintance, he would never have forsaken his “cover” to show so much enthusiasm. As we would say, he had an “image” to maintain.
Other clan members were not so heavily invested in “staying cool”. The young were never allowed to approach me, let alone to exchange words with me; but a few of the elders, and an old matriarch named Eyakaka in particular, very eagerly plied me with questions. I won’t pretend that these overtures didn’t partake of the insulting, to begin with. I could see, even, that they made Nyahmwhum nervous, as if the initial reason for the more general interest in me was a matter of gathering evidence against the old reprobate. I endured all the poking at my clothes and jibing at my fair skin with perfect stolidity, and always repaid contempt with humility. Unlike most human societies, the hairy clan didn’t bear a grudge for long. My patience was soon rewarded, and I was able to answer their queries in greater depth and at greater ease.
Perhaps I went too far in this. Perhaps my egotistical pleasure in being admitted, after a fashion, into the Chimpanzee clan—a unique achievement for a member of my species—made me forget that their worldview rested in very delicate balance. Perhaps I revealed to them more than they could process.
In any case, Eyakaka’s questions about the human relationship to the “insects” seemed best answered (or so I told myself at the time) by inviting her into my Land Rover. I will not draw out the tedious tale of how I coaxed her and the group about her ever more closely to the thing during my frequent visits, how I had them touch its tires, how they next climbed into its seats, and how I at last showed them that I could command its growls and movements with a magical silver claw in my pocket. Eyakaka was especially puzzled by the windshield, which she readily deduced was that baffling substance—the ice or rare stone or insect shell—so abundantly displayed in the distant city’s buildings. She often asked where it had come from, never being satisfied with any of my responses. The most troubling implication in all that I said was that humans, in their brilliant ingenuity, had manufactured not only the glass, but the entire Land Rover, and even the entire desert of “termite mounds”. Yet on the day when I revved up the engine, exploited Eyakaka’s curiosity enough to draw her into the passenger seat, and took her for a spin down the dirt road and back again, I sealed all the speculation from one end. No matter how ugly and destructive was the great Termite City, one and all among the clan now had to concede that termites truly never made any of it. Humans were solely responsible.
This placed the tribe, and especially my most trusted contacts like Nyahmwhum and Eyakaka, in an impossible position. For the elders now formally recognized that the city, its glass, its steel, its concrete, its noise, its traffic, its filthy effluvium of garbage… all of it was the product of the human tribe. But if that were true, then why was any Chimp allowed to talk to me? For I was surely human, and the effects of the city were surely a crystallization of destructive evil. There had been some room to pity my tribe as long as we humans were supposed to be victims of a mightier power, such as an insect horde; but now that we had shown ourselves—through me—to be bright enough to design and execute the cancer that was choking Mother Earth, how could we be viewed except as more dangerous than ever? They, the Chimps, had underestimated our intelligence, but they had also overestimated our innocence. We became—through me—both superior and inferior to their previous notion of us. We were not as dumb as we looked—but we were far more insane than any sound mind could have imagined.
Whatever Nyahmwhum’s deficiencies as a person (well, as a chimp-person, an Affenmensch), I owe my life to him. It was he who thumped my Land Rover with a stone before I took the final turn that would have led to my usual parking spot. I threw the gear into neutral in order to climb out and see what had happened… and that is when my old friend informed me, in a rasping whisper from a low-hanging limb, that I was to be beaten and pelted to death the next time I appeared at the communal clearing. His warning was my salvation, but its terms were anything but a fond farewell. “Ayuckawah!” he expectorated as he vanished for the last time into the leaves: “Idiot!”
I could close my account of an anthropological odyssey on this sad episode, but I prefer to add an epilogue. The following events are frankly the cause of my wanting to write about all the previous ones. The two will appear unrelated at the outset, but I hope that the reader will notice the same significant connection as did I by the final paragraph.
The occasion was a scholarly conference in a scenic state of the American desert southwest—or, to be exact, a very informal discussion among four of us conferees at the hotel bar after the day’s arcane events. I need hardly explain that these latter (the conference sessions, I mean) had nothing to do with UFO’s or space aliens; yet somehow we did indeed migrate from primate anatomy and evolutionary alteration to little gray visitors with big black eyes. The late hour probably had something to do with it… and our comfy spot on a patio under the cooling night sky, and the volume of Scotch or Vodka under our belts.
Researchers in my field are surprisingly open to theorizing about what intelligent life from other planets might look like, always on the understanding that their words are pure theory. It is felt, however, that a little indulgence in such “what if” games is good disciplinary exercise, rather like an athlete’s limbering up before the big game. So the discussion quickly grew quite detailed, profound, and even opinionated. No one, though, seemed quite ready for the position that I launched in a rare period of lull between various heated debates.
“All of you,” I said, “appear determined to construct a quasi-humanid based upon the conditions of an earth-like planet that, nevertheless, is bound to admit a few exotic variables. But if the little gray people so much reported by local legend and popular culture were to have any foundation in reality, we might very likely not have to leave our own planet to find it. Their place of origin, I mean, might not merely be earth-like: it might be Earth.”
“In which case,” sneered one sympositor, more interested in hatching an irony than in trying to follow my reasoning, “it would not be an extra-terrestrial.”
“No,” I said, “but neither would it—or might it—be a terrestrial. It might be a sub-terrestrial.”
“What on earth do you mean?” asked another companion more earnestly.
“What in earth do I mean, you should say, “I continued. “For why do you suppose that some advanced species of primate might not have chosen eons ago to live in the earth instead of on it? The surface would have been teeming with dangerous predators; caves were long favored as places of greater safety. The surface offered such essentials as water, food, and warmth; caves would have offered purer water after filtration, and the seasonal variation in their temperatures would have been much more moderate than anything on earth. Food would remain a concern, no doubt; but resources like fish and kelp are available to coastal cave systems, and the occupants could also have domesticated certain animals for the nether regions or harvested those that retreated unsuspectingly into caves for rest and safety.”
“And how do these troglodytes create the technology necessary to buzz around in flying saucers?” sneered the ironist once more.
“Geothermal energy and magnetism, of course. We of the surface are only beginning to harness the former, which is an almost infinitely renewable resource that we have allowed to languish right under our noses, as it were. As for magnetism, we still don’t know how prehistoric megaliths such as the Pyramids and Stonehenge were assembled, but we are increasingly certain that some long-forgotten exploitation of electro-magnetic radiation must have been employed. EMR is quite abundant in subterranean locations near volcanic activity: magma chimneys are notorious for bringing up highly magnetic rock from beneath the earth’s mantle. Furthermore, just think of the typical representation of our gray alien. He has huge eyes, a shrunken nose and mouth and ears, an epidermis free of pigmentation, weak and somewhat slimy limbs with elongated digits, and a trunk greatly reduced in size when compared to us surface hominids. In short, he bears the same relation to us that a salamander does to an iguana… and biology can fully account for the salamander’s aberrations. They are all adaptations to cave life.”
“But why, then, would legend and lore have it that these creatures come down from the heavens rather than up from the earth’s fissures?” pursued my more sincere interlocutor.
“In fact, the stories often have them coming from both directions. One of the earliest and most famous sightings concerns seven disks shadowing a pilot as he flew around Mount Shasta—a semi-active volcano. The glorious little burg of Roswell is near Carlsbad—and Carlsbad is famous for its deep caves. Multiple reports have alien craft diving into the waters off Puerto Rico. Submarines are even supposed to have detected some on sonar near the ocean’s deepest trenches.”
“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth rolled into one!” laughed the Pharisee.
“Well, take it as you will,” I concluded as politely as I could manage, “my explanation accounts for more of the popular attributes of the ‘gray’ than yours does, and also more plausibly.” And I ordered another Rusty Nail.
“Seriously, though,” said he who was willing to be serious, “the one great flaw in your fascinating theory is that it simply flies in the face of observation.”
“Which observations do you have in mind?” I said.
“Exactly! There are none! There is no observational support whatever… well, the Puerto Rico incidents, and so forth, I grant you. But when one moves past doctored photos and superstitious locals, one is left with that which seems materially probable, in the world of ordinary reality. We cannot see very far into the universe, and we know that it is filled with surprises beyond our imagination. To ask us to believe the same of the soil and stone beneath our feet… it’s just too much. We would have noticed something by now. Huge numbers of us would have noticed a whole lot, and long ago.”
“Perhaps so, assuming that we knew what we were looking at, and that we were more intelligent than the primate cousins we were supposed to be observing,” I answered.
“And why not assume that? A race of beings vastly brighter than we is easy to imagine on a distant planet, where evolution may have had many thousands more of millennia to work. But how can we possibly assume that something that much more brilliant than we are hides under our feet after developing as the same evolutionary clock ticked? Where’s your evidence? What’s you reason for that?”
“Just a hairy old friend,” I said, “who probably would have appreciated Scotch if his people had had the wits to invent it.”
Dr. Singleton lives in North Texas in semi-retirement, having fulfilled a distinguished teaching career of over three decades.