And Bananas for All is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your leopard-skin loinclothed host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Related reading: Night Flight Mike, The Reaper's Coleslaw, Simon of Space
Our tale continues:
The slow life was, in a word, refreshing.
That is not to say it was always easy: Mike and his troglodyte brethren lived balanced on a knife's edge of survival, allowing them to forget for only the shortest, sweetest moments that almost every element of their surroundings would prefer them dead, and would conspire to arrange for it given the most humble opportunity. The plants, the bugs, the beasts, the spores: all of them were hungry, relentless, and untroubled by conscience.
In the wet season it rained, and then even the water itself seemed determined to wipe out the little troop -- floods, monsoons, quicksand, the bacteria of something rotten spreading down the stream to poison whosoever should want a drink. The wind was wicked; the sun cruel; the air a cloud of disease-laden mosquitos.
But, in time, the wet season passed. Only one chimp was lost.
The hilltop had changed considerably in the wake of Mike. Now, instead of nests on the ground, they slept in hammocks slung between the trees with tough, twisted-fibre ropes Mike manufactured from dried vines sealed with oil boiled from the fat of bushbabies, vervets and blue monkeys. Some of the chimps had become quite adept at the rope-making process, and had even introduced innovations to Mike's clumsy weave. Two of the taller, straighter trees had been stripped of most of their branches in order to serve as crow's nests for sighting predators before they approached too close. Raised between them was a bundle of food stores, their supports coated with sap to dissuade insect thieves; it was a constant arms race against the ants.
At the heart of this simple village was a fire-pit ringed with stones, in and of itself Mike's single greatest contribution to improving daily life for himself and his friends. Over it they cooked their meat and softened edible roots, boiled their drinking water, cured hides, disinfected wounds, and huddled around against the weather's most unsympathetic fits.
"You've got to love fire," Mike would opine.
"Fire hot good," agreed the chimps. "Dance fire, nice fire."
Though Mike had many times attempted to explain the purely mechanical nature of flame, the chimpanzees could not or would not resist the urge to personify it. While Mike patiently demonstrated the methods of firecraft, the chimps insisted on appealing to and deconstructing apparent instances of fire's emotional life, its preferences and grudges, its desires and appetites, its sometimes curiously disconnected way of meting out justice...
"Fire burn! Fire angry!"
"The fire isn't angry -- you just shouldn't muck with it when you've got grease on your hands. Grease is flammable."
"Fire bite punish fire."
"No, the fire is not punishing you. You've just got to wash your hands."
Mike would then shake his head as the chastized chimp would skip washing and instead proceed to feed the fire something they believed it found delicious, like strips of fast-burning bark or dried-out bricks of mulch. Appeasing the fire's feelings of retribution was, to the chimp mind, vastly more important than following Mike's instructions.
"Good nice," the chimp would coo soothingly. "Nice fire good."
Mike had named the chimps, either arbitrarily or in connection to some physical or behavioural characteristic. For their part, the chimps quickly developed gestural short-hand for each name -- a sort of abstracted flick loosely connected to the sound or the action representing the individual. Mike's name, for instance, was simply the sign for the letter M. The young male Mike had designated as Climber identified himself with the sign for "pull."
It was Climber now who hooted from his perch in one of the watch trees. Mike looked up. Climber signed broadly due to the distance between them: "Bad coming."
Mike whistled. The chimps around him stopped whatever they were doing and looked to him. "The baddies are coming," he said in a carrying voice, his hands jogging to echo the words. "I want a bragging party out front, and pincer platoons to the flanks. Slingers to your stations. Go, go, go!"
The apes hurried into position. Mike strolled around the fire-pit, keeping an eye on their well-rehearsed preparations. His clothes were a mash-up of shreds of uniform bound with hides and furs, his lengthening hair kept out of his eyes with a bandana of tough leather. His boots were Canadian Forces standard issue, black as pitch and tough as kevlar. He glanced back up the watch tree to Climber, his brow raised in inquiry.
Climber pointed to his own eyes, then indicated a direction. He squinted at his fingers for a long moment and then carefully raised six. He pointed finally to his genitals.
Mike understood: a war party of six males approaching from the south. Rival chimpanzees, piercing their territory.
"They must be new to the neighbourhood," chuckled Mike. "Slingers: look south! Beaters: to your marks!"
The hilltop fell silent. Mike squatted low by the pit. At the edge of audibility he detected the twig-snap, mulch-crunching approach of the six alien chimpanzees up the south face of the hill. When the footfalls and quiet grunts came close enough Mike nodded to the beaters. The beaters, in turn, yanked and sawed on long ropes attached to a series of young, flexible treetops extending around the hill: the net effect was that the brush all around the invaders began to shimmy and shake, surrounding them in a wash of white noise and petty distractions.
He heard the invaders holler in confusion. From experience Mike knew this would be enough to send most of them fleeing back the way they had come, but there was always a couple stalwart or foolish enough to make a charge uphill. Indeed, seconds later a large, black-faced male burst out of the bush on the periphery of the village, his arms waving in rage and panic.
He came face to face with the bragging party, a line of three females who launched into a furious campaign to intimidate him with flailing arms and shouts. The invader was not impressed; he made little rushes at them, smacking the dirt. The bragging party retreated a few steps at a time, drawing him into the clear. Then the invader caught sight of Mike behind the bragging party and froze, eyes wide. He reared up on its hind legs and roared, sharp yellow teeth casting off strings of saliva.
Mike made a quick gesture. "Fire!" he called.
The bragging party fell back, dropped to the ground, and pulled squares of hard bark over their heads. The invader was pelted by stones launched from leather slings swung by invisible attackers hidden behind leaf-stuffed screens in the foliage surrounding the village. The ordnance came from several directions at once and, while most of the stones missed their mark (the chimps had really terrible aim), the bewildering volley was sufficient to convince the foreign ape to beat a hasty retreat.
"Beaters stop!" yelled Mike. The bushes stopped shaking, providing the fleeing invader with a clear course to safety away from the hill, the sides of his escape route reinforced with two pincer platoons of hollering chimps. As he passed them they gave chase, screaming at the top of their lungs.
A few moments later all parties returned to the hilltop. Mike did a quick head count, then nodded to himself with satisfaction. "Stand down," he said. "We're all clear, guys. Good work!"
The chimps pant-hooted happily and congratulated each other. The babies were pulled out of hiding and Gourmand resumed tearing the carcasses of the morning's prey into strips suitable for easy cooking. Young Edgar and Bella watched intently, fascinated by the work of Gourmand's chipped-stone blade.
After supper everyone gathered for their favourite pastime: taking turns posing inside the window-frame of the piece of charred aircraft fuselage they'd retrieved from the crash site. Mike sat on the ground and laughed along with the gang as Flirt and Glutton did a well-loved slapstick routine in which they kept smacking into one another. The chimps howled, making the distinctive staccato grunts Mike had come to know as the voice of their comedic appreciation.
He did a routine, too, re-enacting moments of physical hilarity from The Simpsons television show -- a show to which the chimps had obviously had much exposure in their prior life. "D'oh!" cried Mike. The chimps fell on their sides, gasping for air.
Later, Mike swung lazily in his hammock as the chimps pursued one another in a fresh battery of mating games. When the courtships started Mike knew it was best to keep clear, as strong emotions were sometimes roused and jealous chimps had a fierce and sometimes blind temper. Any of these gentle creatures could snap Mike's bones without significant effort, given the wrong combination of circumstances.
Mike's throat felt raw on account of using it to say eight or nine things in a single day. When they weren't concerned about rival gangs encroaching on their territory the times when speaking was called for were few and far between; among close friends, the most meaningful kinds of communication were accomplished by eye, body and smell. So rarified were the situations that actually necessitated speech that Mike began to wonder whether warfare -- whether the need to have precise orders understood by groups -- was the impetus that propelled speech into man's daily habit. Almost no other part of life required it, when one stripped away the extraneum.
Twilight came and the moon rose, a crisp crescent of silver between bands of scalloped cloud. The chimps left off from their pursuits to look up at it in wonder. "Sky banana," they signed reverently. "Banana sky."
Bananas were a sore spot for the chimps. They missed them terribly. Any analogue of a banana's shape, like the crescent moon, and any analogue of its colour, including dozens of varities of flower, earned their instant and deepest regard. In the resemblance to their cherished fruit they saw a connection to the original prototype, a byway for worship and a way to touch what wasn't there.
Solemnly they mimed the peeling their index fingers, eyes locked on the above.
Mike sighed. He, too, would like a nice banana.
The next morning was quiet, dry and warm. The sky banana had long since set. There was, however, an uneasy feeling in the air and the chimps eyed the forest around their hill nervously. Mike knuckled his eyes and slipped out of his hammock, raising an inquiring brow at the closest chimp.
"Dinosaur smell," signed Tattler.
Mike frowned. "Huh?"
"Dinosaurs," echoed Glutton seriously. "Dinosaurs again."
"There's no such thing as dinosaurs anymore."
The chimps regarded him sceptically.
A sound began to permeate the forest, and it caused all of the little hairs all over Mike's body to stand on end. The chimps hooted worriedly. In the distance, something giant growled. Mike could feel it through his boots.
His eyes narrowed. He shook his head, then whistled loudly. "Recon squad -- form up!"
The reconnaissance squad moved carefully through the bush with Mike at the head flanked by two roving-eyed young males carrying stone-tipped spears. As they proceeded westward the Earth-rumbling growl clarified into the rumble and chortle of machines at work: the noise grew steadily louder, and soon Mike could detect the acrid perfume of diesel, oil and exhaust.
They stopped at the riverbank. Beyond a thin line of scrub on the opposite side, a clearing was being razed. An occluding blanket of tan dust was swept aside by the breeze and then Mike saw them: massive vehicles in grime-speckled red, orange and yellow -- all the gay colours of the dirtiest, grandest machines of heavy industry. Those closest to the river flexed cavernous metal scoops on the end of long, articulated necks, carving gouges in the ground.
"Bad dinosaurs," signed Flirt somberly.
Mike didn't know how to feel. The tree-smashing, root-tearing work of the machines was terrifying, loud and violent -- yet on the other hand his heart skipped a beat when he saw the distant figures of human beings moving between them, waving and calling to each other, their aluminium coffee flasks flashing in the morning sun.
"Holy crap," whispered Mike. "People!"
Mike had sighted the workers, and the workers had sighted the chimps. There was a flash as someone's field glasses reflected, and then a few of the men jogged over to a giant dump-truck's cab and hopped down again with rifles. Mike signalled a hasty retreat. The chimps looked at him in confusion. "Guns!" said Mike, signing ferverently.
The chimps scratched their heads. Clearly, in their prior life there had been no call or desire for them to possess a firearms vocabulary.
Edgar, however, came to appreciate firearms in a visceral way as he was shot in the chest. He tumbled over backward without making a sound, and when Mike turned him over he found his face frozen in an attitude of surprise. Blood chugged steadily from the hole in his torso, pooling under the ape's armpit. The echoes of the firing had yet to fade completely from the air and Edgar was already well dead.
The workers cheered. Mike looked up. The chimps around him were fleeing, crashing headlong and carelessly into the bush behind him, howling in fear. In seconds they were gone.
The workers splashed across the river.
They were white men. They murmured to each other in South African English as they toed Edgar's corpse with their workboots. "Ag man, that was some shot," said one. "You pegged that monkey like it was right in front of you. Aweh!"
"It's not a monkey, it's a chimp."
"Same difference, baas. Is it any good to eat?"
"Naw. Kaffirs'll probably eat it anyway, though. Might as well drag it round. You lot: get this in the bakkie."
When Mike saw the rude way the men hefted Edgar like a sack of sticks it took every ounce of self-control to keep him from leaping down out of the tree branches above them to throttle someone. He flexed his hands ruefully, feeling the familiar ache in his right from the moist air. He knew any action would be regrettable: he was no match for four armed men alone.
Mike watched them go, teeth clenched. They slogged across the river and joshed with each other as they hauled the body up the opposite bank and then swung it on the count of three into the back of a truck.
"One, two, three." Boom!
Mike closed his eyes.
When he returned to the hilltop the chimps greeted him with anxious looks and worried pants. He told them Edgar was gone, and that the men who rode the dinosaurs had killing sticks that could take away any one of them. The chimps were scared. "What do?" asked Climber, grabbing Mike's shoulder. "Where hide?"
"We have nowhere to go," answered Mike slowly. "There is nowhere to hide. The dinosaurs are eating the forest. They may even want to eat our hill."
They chimps drew close to one another. Many of them reached out to touch Mike for comfort. "What do?" asked Climber again, shaking his head. A dozen sets of brown eyes rested on Mike, wide and pleading.
The ambient sounds of the forest were suddenly very loud. Mike's heart was pounding in his chest. He swallowed, then put his chin up.
"We fight," he declared crisply. "We make war. We stop the dinosaurs."