Jamie enters the glass-panelled Sanctuary, interspersed with shades of green; the door whisks closed behind her as she balances her matcha tea. She digs out keys for the simian rooms. Fleur watches as Jamie enters, but stays on her perch as the windows slide back. The chimp doesn’t take the offered apple.
She looks at Jamie’s face, the piercings and the tattoos. Fleur, her brown eyes precious stones amongst her glossy black fur, signs, “Liked red.”
Jamie smiles. She signs back with her free hand and speaks, mostly to keep herself company, but Fleur often understands. “You don’t like the blue hair? It’s okay. It will change.”
Leo swings from high branches with the ease of evolution to sit by Fleur on the wooden perch. It, like the trees, is manufactured, but outside the enclosure the chimps have real trees. Leo is more brown than Fleur, and his ears stick out farther. “No blue,” he signs.
They are part of the great ape family, just as humans are. Jamie brushes a hand through her hair and gives him the apple. He turns it over in his wrinkled hands, his mouth working over prominent teeth. She tosses a carrot to Fleur who deftly snatches it, then Jamie moves over to the drawer to get the lessons and tests for today. The sleek, silvery console and chairs stand out, like they don’t belong in the fabricated room. Often Jamie will take the apes outside, to the enclosed woods for their sessions. Today they will work concepts, spatial reasoning—always communication.
Jamie smiles at the apes and checks the news, tapping the screen for the next page while Fleur and Leo play with their treats before eating them. The usual politics and economics hold little interest. They’re too far removed from Jamie and the chimpanzees, and from Berek, even if the war he fights is politically based. Her heart aches knowing the bonobo apes have disappeared, hunted to extinction by the atrocities of the war where her husband is stationed. Her throat constricts. The thought of humans eating their closest genetic cousins gives Jamie the creeps. Sipping her cooling matcha, she slides into the chair to read one article. Fleur comes over, leisurely pulls herself up to the desk and sits beside Jamie, poking a finger at the keys.
“Not now, sweetie.” Jamie gently pushes her away, leaning onto one elbow. An elephant has been found in the wild, is going to be cloned. It is old. There are no more anywhere. Not Africa, not Asia—just one little Borneo pygmy elephant, a third species expert at eluding people for a very long time.
Fleur’s finger traces the image on screen. Jamie signs to her, “Forest elephant. Last one.”
Fleur lays a palm on Jamie’s shoulder. She points to the picture, her dark eyes looking intent, and signs, “No one?”
Fleur means “no one else.” Jamie shakes her head and frowns. The last elephant will be kept at the cloning facility in nearby LA, to be remade again and again. Then it will join the identical tigers, giraffes, hippopotami and other large mammals placed in zoos all over the world. Identical in every way, unable to reproduce but able to live, replicates of each species everywhere.
She looks at the chimps. Fleur and Leo are very different—individuals. Unique. And she loves them fiercely. When will their species be consumed by humanity?
But it’s too late for the bonobos, and maybe for Jamie and Berek. For them, the differences are pushing them farther apart. She’s not sure if she blames him for the extinction of the socially open chimps, or just for the failure of their all too human marriage. The war has changed him, made him unable to communicate as well as their simian cousins. Tears well up but Jamie swallows them back with a swig of tea. Fleur and Leo would notice and do nothing but pull imaginary nits from her hair all day. Concepts, reasoning—these she needs to test.
“Leo,” she calls softly.
Leo looks up from playing with the apple core, his large brown eyes inquisitive.
“Come here,” she says, giving the sign.
He shoves the core in his mouth and chewing, jumps down from the perch. He walks over in that slightly comical, rolling gait of chimps. Then he pulls himself up the chair’s arm to sit in her lap. Jamie swivels back to the monitor; Fleur watches from the desk beside the keypad. Enlarging the picture, she says again to Fleur and Leo that this is a forest elephant, the last one on Earth.
Again, it is Fleur who asks first, “Lonely?”
Jamie shrugs and runs her hand through her cropped hair. “I don’t know.” She flicks on the audio and visual to record their session for later analysis. “I think so. Would you be lonely if you were the last?”
Leo simply signs yes, but then he often gives an arbitrary yes or no to many questions.
“What does lonely mean, Leo?” Jamie signs and speaks to him.
He scratches at his head, then stares around the room, his big brown eyes more interested in the fly that buzzes about than in Jamie’s query.
Jamie asks Fleur again, “Would you be lonely?”
Fleur scratches her head and signs back, “Without Leo?”
“Yes,” Jamie says.
“Without you, or Claire, or Mike?” Fleur has symbols for the other researchers that mean “tall” and “baby face.”
Jamie pulls on the barbell piercing her eyebrow, wondering if she would be lonely without the chimps, feeling that old twinge of guilt for keeping them out of their natural habitat. “Yes. But if I was here and you were the last chimp, would you be lonely?”
“What does lonely mean, Fleur?”
Fleur answers quickly, “Without.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, playing with Fleur’s hand but staring at the screen. “Without.”
Berek is on leave and sitting at the computer when Jamie enters the house. His long, lean back is to her, his red hair rumpled. She used to love his boyishness but now she feels the wall that has come between them. The boy is gone.
Steeling herself, she tries to sound cheery. “Hey hon, you’re back sooner than I thought. Everything okay?” She walks over and drapes her arms—tattooed in vines and flowers—over his shoulders.
He shrugs her off and doesn’t turn. It’s been five weeks. “Yeah, fine.”
“‘Yeah, fine?’” She looks down on him from the side, sees the hooded eyes. “That’s all you have to say? How about, hey babe, I’m glad to be back. Or, I missed you? Tell me what’s been happening. Let me into your world.”
“It’s . . . been . . . tough.” He glances up, no expression on his face. “I can’t give you what you need.”
Jamie throws up her hands and paces past the posters, the paintings of apes and forests. “I’m only asking for communication. Tell me what’s going on and maybe I can give you what you need.”
He stands, slowly, still in the grubby fatigues of the jungle. She’s not even sure where he’s been; all she wants is to bury herself in his arms. Being with him this way makes her lonely.
He stares at her. “Can you give me peace of mind? Can you do that?”
She grows quiet. “I don’t know. But I can give you love, if you’ll let me. If we love and share, it will help us.”
Jamie moves into his arms and for a moment he caves over her, wrapping his arms about her. They rest their heads against each other. It used to be like this, before the wars, before he thought it was the best he could do. Into his shirt, she says, “I need you,” and realizes too late her mistake.
Berek stiffens and pulls away. “I just . . . have to have space. After the jungles, the shooting, the— You’re always wanting something I can’t give.”
As he lurches to the door she realizes he’s stoned, a state that equals being back from the war; this has been his way for the last six months. And belatedly she knows she does need him, has always needed him.
Is it wrong to want warm arms around you, to wish for love? Jamie doesn’t know anymore. She is imprisoned by her need and Berek’s slow destruction. Why can’t he need her?
She chews her nail, then stops; her habits won’t help. Eventually she goes to bed, knowing that Berek is likely closing down some bar or worse, a stim joint.
It is late, three in the morning or so when she feels his cool body slide into the bed. They fuck in the darkness. It is neither the comforting sex of lovers getting reacquainted, nor an impassioned longing; it is the rutting of animals, base and meaningless, a faceless anonymity. They don’t know each other, and after Berek pulls out he turns onto his side.
Jamie reaches for him but there is no response. Like something from the wild, Berek has retreated to the jungle. Jamie floats, unanchored in the night, no sense of who she should be without Berek. She is losing him.
Waves of people are leaving the cloning facility but not Jamie, and not the animals. They call it a zoo still, but its purpose has changed. Being a researcher has its privileges and she enters against the tide. She’s smoking again, knowing she shouldn’t. The chimps hate it when she does, and tell her she’s rotting. Rotting from the tar and emotions that she tries to rid herself of. She walks past the enclosure for the tiger, the muddy wallows of the hippo, and a leafy veldt for a rhino. These animals all have plenty of space but are like samples displayed for mass production, their carbon copies replicated in all the remaining zoos. Parents can bring their children and say: Look, this is what once roamed our world, before we destroyed all the trees, before we sucked away the water, before we turned these creatures into shoes and medicines and prizes. Still, we have our trophies. We can say we kept them alive.
There are no giraffes, baboons, zebras, gnus, or lions. They left for history’s long list of No More before the last ones could be cloned. As Jamie stops outside the elephant enclosure, she chain smokes her second cigarette. The elephant is diminutive, about eight feet tall, its prehensile trunk seeking amongst a tree’s leaves. The last of daylight dapples its tough gray hide. Jamie remembers seeing an elephant last when she was a child, but everything had looked larger. There have been no elephants for a couple of decades. And then this treasure, this loner, this icon that lets everyone believe they’re not all gone. One last elephant to assuage humanity’s guilt, to give a sliver of hope that wedges in Jamie’s heart.
She holds her elbow as she brings the smoke to her mouth. A tattooed sunflower clasps her bicep and wraps its leaves down to her wrist. Does the elephant know, she wonders. Does it care that it is the last and no longer free, but caged for the greedy, hungry eyes of a species who wiped out its cousins? Does it mourn the loss of all the large beasts, realizing it is the last of the land leviathans? Even the whales have disappeared. The Japanese saw to that.
Jamie drops her butt and grinds it out, then picks up the pieces and pockets them in her jeans. Horses? Cows? People? The world is diminishing as she and a few others try desperately to relate to their closest relatives, the chimpanzees.
The elephant pulls at leaves, making the branch bow and dance gracefully. It is a picture-book elephant and will be so until the end of pictures. It looks lonely though. There are no denizens to relate to anymore, not even enemies. Only one predator is left.
Fleur and Leo seem listless today, lying on their backs across the branches, playing idly with a large rubber ring and a ball. Fleur drops the red ring and tilts her head to watch it roll in a diminishing circle.
Jamie thinks they feel her mood; she’s caged by a dying relationship. But she has questions to ask, if Fleur will cooperate. “Fleur?” She beckons the ape over.
Fleur stares at her for a minute until Jamie motions again. The chimp lumbers down the branch and walks over. She climbs up Jamie’s chair to sit in her lap. The wrinkled simian fingers pluck at the zipper of Jamie’s red hoodie.
She turns on the large monitor that displays the picture of the forest elephant. Pointing, she then signs, “Can you talk to elephants?”
Fleur, still cuddled in Jamie’s lap, looks at the picture, then back to Jamie. She reaches up and pulls at Jamie’s spiked hair. She dyed it back to red, not because the chimps like it but because she feels it suits her, lets her bleed a little on the outside without scaring people away.
Jamie asks again, her fingers itching for cigarettes, not signs. “Talk to elephants?”
“Yes,” Fleur answers, but Jamie knows she must delve deeper.
“Understand them? Can they talk to you?”
Fleur stares at her, lips working over her teeth. “Only you, Claire, Mike. Leo.”
Jamie sighs. It was too much to hope for, to be able to talk to another mammal besides these primates. There has only been limited success with Fleur and Leo. How much do they mimic, and how much do they truly figure out on their own? She decides to run them through some physical tests: putting together a puzzle, sequencing pictures, using keys for various locks and doors.
The day moves faster than a life, and Jamie, for a time, is lost in her love of the chimpanzees and her fascination with what they see or do. Always it is Fleur who grasps the idea while Leo is more likely to taste a key or eat a piece of a puzzle, or sit and watch the world go by.
Jamie is watching her life go by. Berek used to dote on her and she on him. “Do you love me?” she had once asked.
“More than the stars in the sky. More than the Lakers. More than red wine.” He always changed his answer, always had made her laugh, always had come into her arms.
Now her arms seem to push him away, the tattooed vines form a barrier and she can’t touch him. He has been hollowed by the war, but Jamie wonders if there was more than that. She stares out the windows into the enclosure, and decides they all need to be outside. Leading the chimps through the receding doors, Jamie knows she always needed Berek, needed his reassurances—that she was beautiful, that she was loved, that she wasn’t alone. He was her anchor but now he is dragging them both into the cold abyss.
She stops still and Leo moves past her, scaling his way up a tree. Thin green netting covers the area, letting in air and sun but keeping the apes from wandering away. Jamie clasps her arms, her head sinking to her chest. The enclosure stifles her, even if it is filled with greenery. She feels as much caught in the net as the stray, windblown leaves. Berek is her want, her need, her core, yet she is not able to move on, caged by the human feelings of belonging and reassurance.
Fleur tugs on her pant leg and Jamie gives her a carrot. The ape ambles up to a tree branch and sits eating, watching Leo first, then Jamie, then staring into the emerald canopy.
When Claire arrives, Jamie signs to the chimps and calls, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye, Leo. Bye, Fleur.”
She takes her electric car but doesn’t drive home. Instead she goes out to the coast. On the beach she watches the waves tumble in, wiping clean the sand of any imprints. Could she be like this, the past smoothed away, able to start again? She picks up a broken shell, its white edge softened by time and abrasion. Pressing the ridges into her fingers, she cannot help but feel.
A resolution, strong as the water’s force, galvanizes her to toss the shell, committing to her promise. She will change and fight to survive, make everything work.
Jamie arrives home while there is still light, even for October. She opens the door slowly, thinking, what is the best approach with Berek? Can she even talk to him?
The door thuds shut behind her, silhouetting the interior. As her eyes adjust she sees Berek moving purposefully from one room to the next, his lean frame still dressed in camo pants and an army-green wife beater. He looks good, has always looked good to her. Then it dawns on her. “Where are you going?”
He doesn’t even look at her. “Back to the lines.”
“But I thought you had two weeks’ leave.”
He stops, looks her in the eyes; and she feels as if she is the gun scope’s target. “Been called back.”
Her stomach knots. “I was coming to talk to you. I can’t do this anymore. You’re already a casualty.”
His laugh is an abrupt burst, harsh and ugly. “You’ve taken too much from me. We’ve limped along trying to make each other whole.”
She can’t help it and reaches for him, but he doesn’t move closer. “That’s not a bad thing. We could have helped each other.”
He shakes his head, his eyes red and downcast. “No we can’t.”
She swallows hard, her throat dry. “You’re right. It’s over.”
For a moment he softens. “I love you, Jamie, I do. But I can’t fix me.” Then he cracks the moment apart, spinning on his heel, going into the bedroom and coming out with two duffels.
The pain burns its way down her cheeks and she scrubs it away. She wants to reach out, beg for them to try again, but it’s no use, never was after the war.
He walks past. Her tattooed arms hang limp at her sides. At the door, Berek stops.
“You’re strong, you know.” And he is gone.
Jamie cries late into the night but now she’s done. The silence that follows is deafening, infinite, and so she turns on the computer to stream news. The voices keep her company if not the people. She lies on the bed, a cigarette in one hand, her third beer in the other. She is numb, going through the motions of sip then smoke, sip then smoke.
The night is nearly done, bringing the first shadows of day into her room. At seven she activates the phone, leaving a message at work that she is sick. Fleur and Leo will miss her but she knows they have Mike and Claire as well. She’ll make it up to them.
News wavers in and out of her attention. The riots in Belgium—there are always riots in Belgium—the latest flu fears, the price of oil. She cares little, for it is the entrapment of her soul that holds her in stasis. Could she have loved Berek more, maybe less? If he hadn’t gone to the war, would he have loved her more? Did her needs drive him away? But that’s what humans do. It is what most primates do. Love and need.
The news mentions that tomorrow the elephant will be cloned, its replicates ready for other zoos in a year. Part of a family of one. Elephants grieve too, they have families. What will this one have?
The day creeps on and Jamie paces, smoking, thinking of love and loss. Her mouth tastes acrid, poisoned. She stubs her cigarette into the ashtray on the floor. It is in this moment that Jamie decides. She can’t eat, can’t stop moving, is waiting.
Finally, dusk sets itself upon the horizon and pushes the light away. Jamie grabs a backpack and fruit, then gets into the car and drives in circles for a while, stops to buy a Coke at a drive-thru, parks and waits. She steps out of the car, watching the last pallid yellow seep from the sky. Her tattooed arms, wound with vines and flowers, seem choked but maybe it’s just the way that she holds them. The strangling was going on inside a long time ago. The breath she draws fights its way past her constricted heart.
It is time. Jamie stares up at the facility that houses the Sanctuary. No one is there at this time. Leo and Fleur sleep alone, inside. Jamie unlocks the large glass doors, her reflection staring back at her. She disables the alarm. She could find her way blind so doesn’t turn on lights, as she walks the hall to the Sanctuary.
The air is stifling but then it’s not much cooler outside. When she enters the enclosure, Leo and Fleur are asleep on a platform, cuddled into each other. It’s rare that they do this but their tangle of hairy arms is a forest of companionship. Moving quietly—they’ll wake in time—she goes over to the counter, gathers a few things, and puts them in her pack.
Leo rouses first and looks around, his big eyes mildly curious, still sleepy. He scratches his belly, yawning, running his tongue over his large teeth. Fleur sits up beside him and stares at Jamie. She signs, “Late.”
“I know,” Jamie says and signs. “Will you and Leo come with me?”
Jamie hefts the pack to her back as the chimps amble over. They follow her through the corridor and wait as she locks it behind her. Once out the front doors, she sets the alarms, then takes Leo and Fleur to the car. They climb in the back and she gives them each an apple. She tosses the pack in the front seat and gets in. Rubbing her hands over her jeans, she bites her lip.
She starts the car in motion and speeds through the quiet night. At the zoo—the cloning facility—she pulls up. “Come,” she motions to the primates. They follow her, looking around them as night presses all three close.
A place of animals is never quiet. There are small sounds, a background of rustlings, groans and grunts, of movement as the animals sleep. The nocturnal creatures are watching but their DNA is coded for stealth, and the cages hold their danger in check.
Jamie breathes in, feeling the cool air slide past the constriction. There is the faintest musk of life, and a soft blend of trees exhaling. She sees no one as she passes the large enclosures. Liberation is at hand.
They approach the elephant enclosure. There is the last of the great land mammals. The elephant is awake and rocks back and forth, its trunk raising and lowering. The gray of its body streaked, the evening’s brushstrokes upon it.
Jamie kneels beside the two chimps, and pulls off the backpack. She talks to them now, her hands too busy to sign. “Fleur, can you talk to the elephant? Can you ask if it is lonely?” As she pulls out some tools she looks at Fleur and then Leo. Do they understand?
Fleur looks to the elephant, and then back at Jamie. Jamie signs the questions again, but Fleur only signs, “No talk.”
Jamie feels as if she’s swallowed lead, something heavy, slowly poisoning her. She wishes she could vomit. From the pack she pulls more tools, slender things, delicate in the artificial light. As she hands them to Leo and Fleur, she points.
“Go. Unlock the gate.” She motions again.
Fleur walks over to the enclosure, clambering down the railing and wall, over the cement culvert to where the elephant stands. Leo follows her, their hairy shadows nearly blend into the foliage. Jamie might lose sight of them but then that’s okay. There is a gate just visible, separating the zoo enclosure from the greenbelt behind. A high fence topped with razor wire surrounds the facility.
Jamie leans over the railing, calling softly. “Open the gate, Leo.” The elephant watches, its ears flapping languorously. The grey rope of its trunk moves in slight agitation.
Fleur said they couldn’t talk to the elephant or that they can’t understand each other but there is a level where they all comprehend. Woman, chimps, and pachyderm: they live, they breathe, they cherish freedom.
Jamie talks softly to the elephant. “I don’t know if you know that you’re the last, or that you have no more friends and family. But I think you do, and for that I am sorry. I’m sorry we did this to you.”
Fleur has pulled the gate open and the elephant’s ears flare. Its trunk lifts.
“Go on,” Jamie calls as her pain trickles over her cheeks. “Be free. See the world.”
The elephant takes a step. Jamie knows they may capture it, but it deserves a shot at freedom; the greenbelt is a protected forest, and forest elephants are good at hiding amongst the trees, even if it’s not Borneo.
The elephant moves farther into the darkness, freed for now from the metal confines and a life of replication. It will have one last chance to be whole. The elephant will remain an individual a while longer. Jamie raises her hand in farewell, wishing she could have freed Berek’s heart.
Leo and Fleur have clambered back to her. They look up, handing her the tools. Once the elephant is out of sight, she puts the implements in her backpack, then squats beside the chimpanzees. Signing, she says aloud, “You go too. We have no right to keep you. Go on, be free.”
Leo scratches his head and looks from Jamie to Fleur. Fleur works her lips over her teeth as though trying to speak. She signs, “We free.”
Jamie cannot stop the purifying tears as Fleur reaches out and takes her hand, Leo her other. Together, they walk away from the zoo.