"Just one more day and I'm off this tub," I mumbled under my breath as I sloshed another bucket of water across the floor and squeegeed the monkey shit toward the drain. It was the worst and smelliest job on the ship and it was all mine because I was the low man on the pole.
I'd been assigned to see to the live cargo in the hold being shipped to some research lab in Virginia. There were several cages with monkeys in them and one with a chimp. It was my job to feed them according to instructions printed on a tag attached to each cage. I didn't mind feeding them but cleaning monkey shit off the cages and the floor wasn't my idea of a good time.
This was the first time I'd ever signed on as a hand on a freighter and I'd already decided it would be my last. I only did it to get passage back to the U.S. from Luanda, Angola. How I got to Luanda is another story. Anyhow, we were scheduled to make port the next morning. I'd pack my gear, draw my pay and decide what to do next when my feet were on dry land again.
After I got the floor cleaned, I read the tag on the chimp's cage to remind myself what she was supposed to get for food. As I bent down to read the tag, she reached her hand through the bars and touched my face with her finger. I was startled and pulled back. She sat there looking at me with her soft brown, intelligent-looking eyes. She wasn't behaving like she meant any harm so I bent down to look at the tag again. This time she brushed her finger along the back of my hand. I got the impression she was petting me.
I smiled at her and I'll be damned if she didn't smile back. At least, I think it was a smile. I don't know beans about primatology so, for all I know, she could have been thinking 'I'll rip out your fucking throat if I get the chance.' But I didn't think so. I really thought she was trying to be friendly.
Hoping I didn't draw back a hand minus a finger, I tentatively reached through the bars to stroke her hand like she had mine. She closed her hand around mine and lifted it, holding it against the side of her face, her eyes locked firmly onto mine like she was trying to read my thoughts.
"Well, aren't you a sweetheart," I said, gently stroking her head and shoulder.
She reached through the bars again, this time to take the tag with the feeding instructions in her fingers and hold it up for me to see, clearly associating the tag with food. I looked at it again and read that she was to get a sweet potato, an apple and a banana for her supper. "Hey, you're pretty smart for an ape." I said. I went to the supply cabinet and picked out the best I could find and put them in a metal dish. When I slid her meal through the slot in the bottom of her cage, she smiled again. I suspected I was reading a lot more into her actions than were really there. I think it's called anthropomorphizing.
Even so, I was enchanted. I had no idea chimps could be so personable. As I watched her eat her supper, I was struck by how meticulous she was in her eating habits. She took small bites. When she got to the banana, she bit off the stem and peeled it carefully like a human would and laid the peel on the metal plate and pushed it toward the slot. I wondered that she hadn't displayed this behavior until now. Always before when I came in to clean up and feed the animals, she just sat in the back corner of her cage and stared at me. She wouldn't even eat until I left the room. Why was she suddenly so friendly? Had she finally gotten used to me and figured out I wouldn't harm her, or what? I concluded it was probably because I was the one who gave her food.
I noticed there was a thick plastic sleeve with what looked like a shipping manifest attached to the side of the cage. When I read it I discovered she wasn't a chimp after all but a bonobo, estimated age about seven or eight years old. I wasn't sure what the difference was; I'd have to look it up on line. The manifest said she was going to a place called Adamson's Laboratories, HIV Research. That gave me pause. Anything with 'HIV' on it is going to get your attention and I didn't like what I was thinking. My bet was that she'd be infected with the AIDS virus and studied as the associated diseases developed and progressed; a grim future, for sure.
I put my hand through the bars again and stroked her head. "Damn, girl, I'm afraid you've got a hard road ahead of you. I'm sure sorry about that. I wish there was something I could do to help."
She couldn't have understood the words but I think she picked up on the sentiment because she made a little whining sound and held my hand against her face again.
I finished up feeding the monkeys and headed for the door. Before I was across the room, she made a kind of 'whoop' sound causing me to turn and look at her. With her index finger, she pointed directly at me, then rattled the cage door and pointed at herself. I guess I must have looked perplexed because she did it again. In fact, she did it four times in exactly the same order: pointing at me, rattling her cage door and pointing at herself. As I closed the bulkhead door behind me, I heard her making the whining sounds again.
I couldn't get her off my mind for the rest of my shift. I felt pretty sure she was telling me something and that it was important to her but I didn't speak simian and apparently I stunk at charades.
When my shift ended, I went to the Chief Mate and asked it I could use the computer in the ship's library. He gave his permission and I sat down to look up 'bonobo'. It seems they're a lot like chimps but not the same. Apparently bonobos and chimps split about two million years ago from a common ancestor. Bonobos are slightly smaller, they're shaped a little differently and have some distinctive behaviors, one of which is a bent for sexual promiscuity. 'More power to them, ' I thought. They also have a completely different social structure aimed at peaceful coexistence instead of a fixed hierarchical structure based on male domination. Other than that, I didn't learn much of value.
At midnight I was still lying in my bunk wide awake, thinking about what was likely to happen to her. I got up to walk around the ship hoping I could tire myself out. It wasn't working so I dropped down to the galley and poured myself a cup of coffee in a to-go cup, making it about half cream and sugar to cut the caffeine. I decided that as long as I was up, I might as well check to see how the object of my worry was doing.
There was a soft yellow light in the hold when I stepped through the bulkhead. I could see she was curled up on a ragged old blanket on her side with her back to me. As I approached the cage, she turned her head and looked at me, then rolled over into a sitting position next to the cage door and reached out toward me. I held her hand and looked at her as I sipped my coffee.
She let go and reached for the coffee cup. "Whoa, girl! I don't think you'd like this stuff." Then I thought, 'Well, maybe she would. It's half cream and sugar and it certainly isn't hot enough to burn her.'
I held it out toward her and she gingerly took the cup from my hand and lifted it to her lips, taking little sips. She loved it. After a few sips, she handed it back to me.
It's true I hadn't read all that much but from what I recalled, this wasn't typical behavior for an ape. Certainly untrained ones shouldn't be able to communicate this well with humans. I didn't know where she came from but I was pretty darned sure that, wild or domesticated, she wasn't your average lab specimen.
I pulled a crate up next to her cage and took a seat. "I sure wish you could talk, girl, because I think there's something you want to tell me." She reached through the bars and touched her fingertip to my lips, then touched it to her ear. Then she did it in reverse; her lips to my ear. The message couldn't have been any clearer if she'd written it in block letters. My heart rate picked up as the realization dawned on me that she understood me perfectly.
'My god!' I thought. 'I think we've got some kind of genius ape here!'
I offered her the cup again and she took a few more sips, then handed it back. I was no genius myself but I was pretty well educated and I could recognize sophisticated thought and behavior when I saw it.
She patted me on my shoulder. When she was sure she had my attention, she repeated the same routine I saw earlier that afternoon. She pointed at me, rattled her cage door and pointed at herself. The message was clear now. When she saw in my eyes that I understood her, she moved to the side of the cage where the plastic sleeve with the manifest was attached and pointed to it. I could see then that that part of her cage was made of heavy screening instead of bars. She couldn't get to the sleeve. I walked around and looked at it again and saw a small flat key resting on the bottom. To emphasize the message, she poked at the screen again.
Now that I understood what she was asking, it broke my heart that I couldn't do anything about it. If I let her out, where could she go onboard the ship? On top of that, I'd be in a world of shit with the Captain as well as the people who owned her. I sat back down on the crate looking at her and shaking my head. I guess she could read the message on my face because she reached through and took my hand, just holding it and looking at me with those searching eyes. I felt terrible for her but what could I do? I offered her more coffee but she took the cup and set it on the floor between us.
'Damn!' I thought to myself. 'Is there nothing I can do for this poor creature?' There were probably animal rights groups out there that would jump all over this but I didn't have any idea how to access them even if they could do anything in time to save her from what was probably a miserable existence. Once she was in the possession of the research facility, it would all be over but the shouting.
But as we looked at each other and held hands, an idea began to formulate in my mind. The cages were sitting on pallets. It would be my job in the morning to check the animals one last time and cover the cages so their inhabitants wouldn't go crazy with fear when the crane lifted them out of the hold to be deposited dockside. As soon as that last job was completed, I could report to the ship's bursar to collect my pay and either sign up for another run or take my leave.
Rational thought forced its way back into my brain. What I was contemplating was a serious crime, probably a felony. This animal had to be quite valuable, even as a lab specimen. On the other hand, if I got caught, I'd probably only get a slap on the hand for having naïve and misguided sentiments. The more I looked into those beautiful, intelligent eyes, the more I convinced myself she was worth the risk. The problem was how to get her off the ship?
I sipped the cold coffee and struggled with the problem for a while as a plan gradually began to take shape. It felt like a good plan but its success would depend on her cooperation. I didn't doubt she was smart enough but would she be able to carry out her part without getting us nailed? Well, I guess I'd find out in a few hours.
I had to try to communicate to her that I would try to get her out but that it would be later. I wondered if she had any concept of linear time. It felt a little silly playing charades with an ape but I had to try. I retrieved the key from the plastic sleeve and moved the crate away from he cage. Looking her in the eyes, I poked my finger at my chest, showed her the key, rattled her cage door and pointed at her. Then I pointed at the door. She smiled as she took my hand and held it against her face. She understood!
I pointed at myself again and pressed my hands together and laid my face against them and closed my eyes trying to indicate sleep. She smiled again and moved across her cage and curled up on her blanket.
As I drifted off to sleep in my bunk, I wondered what was really going through her mind. I wondered if she'd planned all along to try to enlist my aid in abetting her escape or if it was a moment-by-moment evolution. That was too complicated a thought to express with finger pointing so I'd probably never know. I did know the timing on this little caper would be close.
Still foggy-brained from the short night, I got up early to shower, shave and brush my teeth. I dropped down to the galley to grab a sausage and egg biscuit and another cup of coffee, heavy on the cream and sugar. On the way to the hold, I took my packed duffle out of my locker. Tugs were already pushing the freighter into position against the dock so I'd have to move quickly before they began to unload.
When I stepped in the door, she was sitting by the cage door waiting for me.
This was the moment of truth. What would she do when I opened her cage? I had a scary thought as I pulled the key out of my pocket. I should have tried it last night to make sure it was the key to her cage. What if it didn't fit?
"Here's hoping, girl." Taking a deep breath, I set the coffee down on the floor and slid the key into the slot. It turned and the door swung open.
For a moment I thought I'd made a terrible mistake when she bolted through the open door and jumped on me, wrapping my neck in her incredibly strong arms. It took me a few seconds to decide she was hugging me and not attacking. I put my arms around her and hugged her back. After a bit of mutual affection and some considerable relief, I set her down and opened my duffle. I pulled out about three quarters of my clothes that were pretty much beyond hope anyhow and tossed them into the cage, crawling in after to wrap them up in her blanket and try to arrange it in a shape that would look like an ape curled up sleeping.
When it looked about right, I backed out, locked the door and put the key back into the sleeve after wiping my fingerprints off. Next thing was to carry out my assigned duties to check the rest of the animals and cover the cages with heavy tarps. While I was bustling about getting everything done, she sat in the middle of the floor sipping my coffee and watching me work.
I double-checked to make sure the pallets were ready to be unloaded. "OK, girl, this is it." I looked at my watch and saw that it was after seven; the bursar's office would be open and I could collect my pay. Now the question was would she do what I wanted her to. I opened the top of my duffle and pointed at her, then pointed into the duffle. There wasn't a moment's hesitation. She stood on her short legs and held up her long arms for me to pick her up. I let her down into the duffle and she settled into her normal crouched position comfortably. I laid a thin T-shirt over her head and padlocked only two of the eyelets together, leaving the other two gapped to allow her some air and breathing space.
Patting the duffle to reassure her, I said, "OK, girl, here we go! Please don't make any monkey sounds for a while!"
"You know what?" I added, "You need a name. 'Girl' is too impersonal considering we're partners in crime. What should it be? Oh, I know! You're a bonobo, so I'll call you Bonnie. How's that? I'll take you're silence as agreement."
I estimated she had to weigh at least seventy-five pounds when I slung the strap of the duffle over my shoulder and headed up to the bursar's office on an upper deck. I was third in line outside the door. I set the duffle down carefully and slid it along in front of me as we edged forward, occasionally sneaking my hand in to pat the top of her head. Of course I was feeling a tad paranoid and watched the other hands in line for any sign that they thought there was anything unusual about my duffle bag but they all had more important things on their minds. Finally it was my turn. I stepped inside and showed the bursar my ID. He rifled through a strongbox full of envelopes and pulled out one with my name on it. He pointed to a line on the payroll list for me sign and handed me my pay packet. I peeked inside to insure it was cash as I'd requested and stuffed it into my pocket, making my exit as quickly as possible without drawing undue attention to my self. I was new at this crime game and I felt like 'THIEF' was written across my forehead in neon orange letters.
Even before I could get off the ship, I damn near panicked when I saw the line forming at the bottom of the steps where some guy was checking IDs. They hadn't started unloading the ship yet so the fact that the ape was missing shouldn't have been discovered. I guessed the ID checks were routine but I was kicking myself because I hadn't even given it a thought. I felt a little better when I saw it was just one guy and he wasn't going through anyone's personal stuff. I stepped up and showed him my passport and my Vermont driver's license. He smiled as he asked if I was bringing anything illegal into the country. "No," I said, "but I might be carrying some alien life forms on my body." I couldn't resist being a smartass; it's my nature. He laughed, saying, "Try not to pass them on to anybody else." He waved me through the gate.
I headed for the line of taxies waiting to cart the hands off to their favorite dens of iniquity. I asked the taxi driver if he could recommend an inexpensive motel on the other side of town. He said he knew just the place and reached for the duffle to put it in the trunk. I picked it up and told him I'd rather keep it with me as I slid into the back seat and set Bonnie on the floor between my legs. All the way across town, my hand was inside the duffle resting on her shoulder. Thank the stars for Checker cabs and their generous legroom.