Moon Over the Monkey's Back, Part 3
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Had he by Gad? Well that’s not how he relayed it to me indeed! My thumb pried against the remaining pad of un-inscribed pages. I – of the whole world - knew what a barren enterprise looking for later entry would be, and yet;
The pages flicked slowly at first like the tick of a standing clock in the study’s sour silence. Then like the irregular pitter-patter of tiny feet. Thinking suddenly of Rebecca and Helen I cast the journal aside and standing, strode to the fire and reached out to the thinning flames. Hidden reflexes set to in my subconscious, slinking around, pawing open long buried knowledge, scrabbling unbidden. In concord with these submerged processes, I saw clotted white pupils crusted over, the elderly finger-tipping mutely along the walls to my open door.
Pages ticked back;
- Ochre painted limbs of Paiwan devils, gliding through bamboo-
Alien hands clawed backwards, disinterring bones of lost feeling
- Frenzied, ungodly shrieks, bellowed from giant lungs far away. Then, impossibly closer, behind me, snapping trees. A dervish of shredded branch and bush and human screams-
and delivered to me.
-Raddick. That puzzled look, swarmed around by gibbering beasts.“Time Makenzie! Call time-
Cuttings of my past I had exorcised with love and marriage. I looked at my hands in the soft glow, and saw them as once they had been years ago. Grimly caked, pushing down into a cranial cavity; cerebral fluid spilling over the snapped-china white of a freshly sawed skull. Him, looking on, a lopsided turban of bandages, idiot smile plastered on his face, a chittering yammer of laugher trilling out.
Without precognition or vestige of autonomy it seems now, I chanted one of those inane nurses’ rhymes, remembered on our treacherous march, into the fireplace. “Here comes a sweeper to sweep you to bed.” My voice dropped to a sing song whisper, “here comes a chopper to chop off your....…what were you playing at man?” I snarled into the embers and turned back to write.
The morning of 17 September 186-, del Torres, our Filipino Sergeant fetched me up from my practice located down at the consulate’s gate house. Upon entering the spacious dining hall up at the embassy proper I found him already at the decanter counter. As though we had been conversant for a while, he declared ; “That periodical is the latest edition of Frazer’s Magazine. A smack of the Grampian amber, Mac?” I heard a ring of crystal.
“Aye, if it’s the Macallan pitch me in Raddick, save the junk. I’m a highlander not some ‘gambei-ing’ Peking dribbler jigging after his first snifter.” I took a seat.
Spread out on the larger round table, plastered in starched linen, was a magazine opened up at the page annotated with the header; Muller’s ‘Lectures on Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language.’
You see, a few years before, some jaundiced frog taxonomist called Paul de Chaillu had pitched up in London, stuffed gorillas in tow, triggering members from all strata of society to perform the civilized equivalent of slinging faeces all and sundry who disagreed with their personal interpretation of human origination. And I’m talking about bellhops and matrons. It was even discussed in Punch!
Enter side stage Owen and Huxley, two of the nation’s foremost anatomists exchanging blows, toe to toe, regarding the existence (or not) of the hippocampus major in the gorilla brain. Later on, Muller, an eminent Sanskrit scholar and pedant-supreme figurehead of Kantian lineage boomed from his pulpit in Oxford about a single primeval sea of words, perfectly rendered and symmetrical grammatically.
The fountain of all human speech, containing the roots of every single language and word, from which all our imperfect utterances, filled with inflections and suffixes, irregular tenses and spellings – not to mention the guttural coughs of the lower races -- have crumbled into our mangled words like Babel itself re-cobbled outside the gin palaces of Stepney.
And that was just the skirmishes, before Broca. Darwin, the poor Sod, kept on being lassoed out from his greenhouse to be thrown into the public circus. Scientists – its incredible to think now – evidenced metaphor, analogies to language were drawn from geology, and why? The Origins of Species, of course. Language, its history, was Culloden field for evolutionary naturalists. And that’s just the abstract. Look into it yourself, with a jug of coffee and vial of smelling salts. It’s like that Chinese curse ain’t it? In short, the political intrigues of these so called scientists made the Great Game look like hid n’ seek with Grammy.
The latest parcel carried by the clipper Flying Cloud was shredded open and strewn across Raddick’s adjacent study’s desk, already pocked with claret rings and dusted by tobacco ash. Tylor’s Researches into the Early History of Mankind, alongside Bateman’s On Aphasia for me, with Raddick powering through Whitney’s The Life and Growth of Language amongst others. There we had cajouled, cursed and hazed each other. It’s not every day you get the Empire’s foremost linguist and a surgeon fresh from understudying Mr K- in Edinburgh at such a time.
Nonetheless, I was nettled at the intrusion upon our – my – duties.
“Look here Raddick, if you have brought me up here for one of your comparative philology polemics, hold fire. I have a troop of natives line up outside my surgery with eyes like cueballs and if we can’t get them basking in God’s good light, how will we flog ‘em our Indian treacle?”
He set down the crystal on the coffin starched linen and sat opposite me. “Be a champ and do as bidden for once, boy.” He enunciated the words unsurely, as though from a verse, not quite remembered. My eyes scanned the article he had set out, noting exclamations writ in his tightly knit hand. ‘Preposterous notion! Baboon!’ and the like. Raddick pushed out his hand curiously, like one of my patients reaching for an unseen support, and suddenly rapped upon a paragraph. It read;
Where, then, is the difference between brute and man? What is it that man can do, and of which we find no signs, no rudiments, in the whole brute world? I answer without hesitation: the great one barrier between the brute and man is Language. Man speaks, and no brute has ever uttered a word. Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it. This is our matter of fact…
Tiny convulsions of his hands had started to spastically jettison tobacco over the bone hard cloth of the table.
“’Nation man, what on earth is the issue?” I exclaimed.
“Do you agree with this abomination?” His pipe stem tapped the paragraph.
“Animals lacking reason, lack the wherewithal for language. I do. You know it. The third frontal convolution…”
“And how much would you wager on that Mac?”
“It can’t be proved! The mental life of animals, as Muller himself declares”
“Don’t you quote me him! Exactly the point, he delineates his full ‘scientific methodology’; mockingly said, at which point he made a depraved inflection of his hands, like turning two giant dials in front of his chest. “Countered and justly dispatched, as we both know, by that anonymous letter in the Westminster Review, which debunked his scientific sham to be counted alongside parlour room ectoplasm, in terms of evidence based practice. And yet, the final tug of the beard, he admits to the utter impossibility of knowing the inner life of even such a stalwart and handy specimen, the mollusk!”
“You’ll give me another whiskey before you launch into your intra-departmental hatchet jobs good God Sir!” I made a round of the decanters myself for us both. It’s not the man he despises, was it though? T’was the whole societies cemented around these investigations. He was left out. No, not left out. I turned.
“My dog, when I shout heel, cowers and does as bid. I grant you that. Does he comprehend the word’s meaning? Enough to use in another context, ey? Or does he merely perform an action to a stimulus, one that could be replaced, if I burnt him with a poker, let’s say, with a different outcome? Both, mark, zero real cognition. Aye, the latter! And if you ever find a means to form an ‘evidenced based’ test” (at which point I made the udder-clasping gesture myself at him) “the wager will be ten.”
“So, at a party then and not on the Boxing Day shoot, if you shouted ‘heel’ to Poppy, she wouldn’t understand? She doesn’t dream? You know she does!”
“You’re wrong, Mac. Pitifully. Alea iacta est! Muller’s Rubicon has been crossed, not by them. Us, Mac.” He was earnest, wired tight even still. God he was hard work where he was morose and manic.
“What on earth do you even mean now?”
“That we speak the dilute remains of Darwin’s ‘common ancestor’, there can be no doubt. That beasts, with the right degree of encephalization can communicate and actually use languages, again, there is not a doubt in my mind.”
“Are you telling me Keat’s poetry has come from the, a language of…you are too far gone, Sir!”
“You just proved it, by gesturing back to me; proto-language Mac!”
And yet, far from gleeful in his demonstration, he acted like this was all old hat to him. The man cowered over his pipe, as a man wrapped into himself in the chill of a winter’s night having missed the last tram. Unfathamable. “You were a field athlete at school were you not? Standing jump.” Used to my associates’ hop scotching cognitions by this time, I replied in the affirmative. “In your last meet, what distance took first that day?”
I sipped the glorious sting of malt. “Now come clear immediately man. What has got you in such a funk?”
Standing up and marching to hold the tall open shutter he spat out his question .
“Four meters? Five?
“It was a good few years ago now, but I think the current world record, if you must know is set at three meters, plus change, by Heuvelt.”
His set face and puckered lips were contrasted greatly to the turquoise sparkle of the sea beyond.
“Well, of course it was. The back wall of my study to the door is, roughly, half a dozen strides is it not? A few more for our dear Gu Shan chums here. But I would put it at a couple of meters beyond Heuvelt’s best effort”
“As I would,” I replied, increasingly bewildered.
“Well then I can find no earthly explanation for it. And as you know I’m an atheist. I am not only, not only, yes! Scared, but shamed, by way of personal stupidity. You see”, he turned to me casting the pouch at my chest seeing me take out my pipe myself. “I had opened up for the morning and sent Yu Pian for a coffee, and, you must understand I had surveyed the whole room, mind, and took straight to my table to begin work, when turning, I glimpsed in the dressing mirror adjacent to the door. No, not glimpsed! I saw! A man, dressed exactly like I am right now, was... Mac, there was a man stood just behind me! His face! That face, I cannot…and yet, reaching around to strike him down; there was no one there! So again I ask you how can this be?”
He had been begun to pace from outside and back to my spot quicker and quicker as he spake and suddenly lurching to the rail of the balcony cried to me. Racing to his side I saw the familiar gaudy temple tops outside the consulate’s grounds, street hawkers, and a solitary foreigner with a long sea coat. “See him there Mac” pinching my arm jabbing away at the fellow walking the sea view.
“What of him, get inside, you can’t be seen like this”
“What is that, there! From under his jacket, if not, if not; a tail?”
“Get in now, and take a whiskey while I have Del Torres bring up my bag; what on earth got you into this state my dear fellow, now sit. Sit!”
When I returned and had administered the morphine, before helping him to the couch in the annexed office, he looked at me, hollowed and glassy eyes.
“I can prove it Mac, the Paiwan. There’s a chieftan up there who speaks to them. Think of the accolades if nothing else, if you helped cross the Rubicon yourself Makenzie! Why you would be a household name! I’m going tomorrow, the trail starts beyond Ape Hill. You must come! Say it’s to ease the missionaries’ efforts.”
At the desk in my room later that night, in the sickly yellow glow of a cheap candle, I read on in the article.
If this were all, if the art of employing articulate sounds for the purpose of communicating our impressions were the only thing by which we could assert our superiority over the brute creation, we might not unreasonably feel somewhat uneasy at having the gorilla so close at our heels.
I blew out the light. In the pitch-black, listening to the quickening pulse of my heart, I decided to visit the Paiwan, one of the indigenous clans of savages found in the interior. All of whom practiced the hunting, and collection, of human heads.
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I'm fascinated by this.
I'm fascinated by this. There's shades of Doctor Moreau, and the dialogue is very evocative of time and place. I think it needs a bit of editing - it's a bit too wordy in places and you lose the pace. But it's well worth the effort and I'm looking forward to the next part!
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