Your given signs and pairs: mouth, kisses, red-pink, drink-apple, hurry-go. You have no tenses, only momentum into what’s before you.
Illustration by Erin Perfect.
I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. That stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over.
Each time I meet you, Snow, you’re sitting on the ass-burnished concrete floor of the same un-room of some benevolent gorilla zoo. I’ve been coming for months now, and it’s always the same. The cinderblock walls, the aluminum dish of kale and banana, the flotsam of neon-colored toys. The dented xylophone I once saw you hold to your ear, listening. The floor is shined from all the scooting you do, chasing after your cat. Your cat, a wound-up little blur of a thing, orange pinball. You two are caught in perpetual motion around the same track: the bare corner, to the blanket, to the keeper’s door, and back. The cat is more nimble, with a cat’s temperament. When she’s had enough of your heavy-handed loving, the backwards fur brush, she zips from your hands. For a second, before you can mobilize, your gorilla finger stretches out toward her like Adam on the Sistine Chapel. Her name was the first name you signed, before even your own.
Your keepers taught you to speak by signing. Now they can’t figure out where you should live.
Your keepers taught you to speak by signing. Now they can’t figure out where you should live. There is no space that fits. There’s your rope swing, your gnawed-up tire; through the enclosure door, the trim field with a hose-fed waterfall, and a gorilla garden they’ve stocked with four kinds of edible, indigenous plants, just for you. You like these things. You do not love them. It’s all still so feeble.
If you can sign couch, should you be outfitted with a couch? If you can sign Africa, should that entitle you to go?
There’s no cat with you today. I look in the viewing window, in the aftermath of your banana mush and kale, your first morning’s visit with Penny. Penny loves you. All the keepers do. Just watch next time she rubs her fingers through your fur, searching. Not a nit in sight. But at the moment, you’re alone. Your arms rest at your side, not signing. Your gaze is fixed on something on the wall. I have the sense you’re rehearsing a monologue, or else just waiting for the right audience.
I write, you sign. We have everything in common. That’s why I’m here. This poetic idea that maybe a writer could help. They’d wanted a real novelist, or a PhD, but even they had plans on Mondays from nine to one. So you got me. No ASL beyond the sixty signs Penny taught me that I practice with my flashcards while I eat my toaster waffle. We’re both trying to learn to say what we want to say. But language can only reach for what’s missing, try to represent the void. You in your room, and me at your window: we both do so much pointing to what’s outside of our grasp. When that gesturing works, we’re magicians, drawing aces from the air. Those aces, though, are still just illusion. Signing apple will not put one in your hand.
Most days I stay outside your room with my notebook, observing. Somehow it seems more respectful, although we both adore the company. Today, though, after observation, Penny brings me in. Penny taught me to mime picking your nits, the most intimate I’ve ever been with a nonhuman animal. I approach slowly, from the side, something I learned from some documentary about sharks, probably not applicable here. How terrific to smell you, the hay-and-oil perfume of your skin. I like the coarseness of your fur, the satisfying way I can itch for you at its roots. Sometimes you’ll roll back your head, or rest it on your shoulder, content. Today, you stop me to sign, “Snow bugs good.” Each sentence you give me has the quality of a koan, as much a door or a signpost as a place on the map.
I had this dumb idea that I could read you an adventure book, Moby Dick. You mostly liked to unhinge the book like an accordion, then set it on your cat. I caught you once gently peeling off the top corner of a page. You wore the curl as a hat.
Before I ever met Penny, I’d seen her pictures with you. In all the photos, she crouches before you. Your toes, sun-leathered, point out to the sides ballerina-style as you sit with your cat. You hold it up between you and Penny, as if to deflect direct gaze. Your kitten with its most poetic name, Snub, mute and wondering, the live wire in between.
This obsession we have with pointing to what’s offstage, to striking through the whale’s white mask. This obsession we have with teaching the animal to speak. This obsession I have of my own with the limits of language. The fight to make contact with something that won’t say.
So many of the questions given to you return the same answers—baby, baby, baby. No wonder you cradle your cat so gently, offer her your kale.
Your ASL vocabulary outpaces mine by hundreds of signs. Each such a pleasure just in its gesture: the shimmy of hands shaking for tree, the slip of a thumb along a cheek, where a bonnet string once tied for girl, and the sneakiness of the obscenities, which Penny wouldn’t ever teach you, which makes me want to teach them to you myself. Your 230 signs, and the three years it took to give them to you, and it just scratches the surface of what there is to say. Gorillas can live for sixty years. We could be doing this until I’ve had children, until you’ll in all likelihood still be trying to nurse your cat. You picked her out from the litter and vetted her by having her lick your toes.
So many of the questions given to you return the same answers—baby, baby, baby. No wonder you cradle your cat so gently, offer her your kale. We want to know whether you dream, and you ask instead for someone to hold. Your hands call for this love. You’re stuck just with us and the best we can give.
Penny never changes, either—the same pin curls, the same flared blue corduroy pants. She’s chosen to suspend herself with you. This is her gift and love for you: to have the same conversation endlessly, like a mother and unaging toddler, the same battles, the same tenderness, the same walls, again and again and again.
You are the only gorilla I know with so many fans, and so few of them in your company. Penny asked you to chat with them through video. I’ve read the transcripts. Your given signs and pairs: mouth, kisses, red-pink, drink-apple, hurry-go. You have no tenses, only momentum into what’s before you. Everything is imperative, present, subjectless.
I read and read for it, but only caught it once in my research: some sign of you as “I,” of your separation from the stuff of the world. They asked you if you taught other gorillas to sign. You said “Myself mouth.” It’s enough. In that one word, “myself,” you found another wall.
To partake, you first must recognize that you and the world are not the same.
I’ve read how the fundamental and exclusive work of language is this remaking of the world in the signs. To partake, you first must recognize that you and the world are not the same. You cannot name your cat unless you know they are not the same as you, unless you come to believe in a distance between you and the bright stuff of the world, unless you come to believe in “you” and “I.”
Whether or not teaching you this is a cruelty done unto you, I cannot decide.
You cannot hold your kitten and sign at the same time. Your hands can’t be busy with the stuff of both these connections, one for me, and one for the real matter of warm cat, purring to be with you.
For eighteen years, Penny’s website has said the same thing: a new life for you in Maui is coming. Penny hopes that when you get to your new estate in Hawaii—a plantation of idyll and super-saturated greens—it will entice you and your current neighbor, Paul, to mate. You’ve met in the yard. It’s been only friendly. Where you are now, there’s no privacy, and Penny says gorillas are shy. Gorillas can be embarrassed. I try to ask you this, in a signed zen koan of my own: “Snow want no people?” “Baby, nose, sleep,” you sign, then take my hand.
So much heartache over those who are “the last of their kind,” and here we’ve made you to stand alone. This gesture you make over and over of handing me Snub, then taking her back. Maui, whatever that could be for you, is far offstage. Its sign is totally blank.
And sometimes you do sign angry, or something missing, or a sign you know but we don’t. A string of Xs in the transcript. However many months we’ve been at this, how well I’ve gotten to know you, however much compassion I have for you, and always still a wall. This habitual feeling of being on the cusp with you, and the feeling that you feel it, too.
Whenever I imagine you, Snow, the zoo is closed, and somehow you’ve left that unmarked room. You’re instead nestled in the notch of a massive tree, and the air is rich with insect noise. You’re asleep, maybe clutching your young. The thumpworn plastic toys, the food dishes, are only the stuff of your dreams, and the strip of yard is replaced with a strip of stars seen through the tropical canopy. And I can see your hand, dangling over the branch, signing on and on and on.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky’s writing has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Tin House, The Story Collider, Bookforum, and Web Conjunctions. She is associate editor at Tin House and teaches writing at the New School.