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Authors: Cheeta

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BOOK: Me Cheeta
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Around the time that Mama’s swelling was approaching its height, Cary killed a pair of colobus monkeys, and with the others occupied by the feast, Mama slipped away with us down to the stream to drink. Archie knuckled out of the trees with a greeting of quiet pant-grunts and Mama, he and Victoria groomed each other for a while; then Archie crossed the stream, shaking a branch to make us follow. Mama swung me onto her and we set off behind him: I lay straddled on her back, looking out for the many-colored bird or marmosets or turacos in the canopy. Victoria knuckled along quietly after us, holding a termite stick she’d made out of a msuba twig, and Archie led the way, impatiently shaking branches at us if we lagged behind.

There were fig trees below us, and Mama and Victoria were tired, but when we tried to turn back, he came hoot-screaming and
charging out of the shadows, and I tumbled off Mama’s back as she went sprawling under his impact. He grabbed her by the leg and dragged her down the slope, kicking and pummeling her, then stalked back past us with his hair bristling and sat down, waiting for her to stop screaming and come to him, which she did. She had to: she had us to look after, you see. He apologized with kisses and caresses, and groomed her for a while before we set off again. This was the beginning of what National Geographic refers to as a “consortship period.” Discovery calls it “Honeymoon in the Trees”!

Where did Archie take us? Over the hills and far away. Past the place where we’d met Alfred, through strange forests of moss-covered trees to the higher ground beside the escarpment, where the clouds clung and little groups of banded mongooses scurried around, carrying frogs in their mouths. We nested in a giant msuba beside a termite mound, and Archie kissed Mama’s wounds and groomed her and apologized for hours and mated her again and again. Next day Mama and Archie took Victoria and me termite fishing, and as a special treat Archie showed me how to make a termite-fishing stick.

Mama hardly played with us because Archie was all over her, and if we tugged at her fur while she was being penetrated, she’d distractedly wave us off to play elsewhere. Victoria taught me how to climb, but I missed Tyrone and our tumbling games and groomings. Archie, on the other hand, was having a ball—constantly either guzzling termites, in his horrible lip-smacking way, or mating. I tried a bit of mongoose and didn’t like it. It rained all the fucking time.

I remember, too, one evening near the end of the honeymoon, how we were surprised by the cries of a strange animal from far, far away. The distant hoots of the hostiles had died away at dusk, and then came these other cries—sudden barks, or cracks, like sharp
thunderclaps. Little sequences of these long-echoing thunderclaps, out of a stormless sky, far away but loud. Crack, crack, crack. Crack-crack. In six months, I’d be sucking on a Lucky Strike and making prank phone calls in a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. So. What happened was this.

We were on our way back to our old territory when we came across Kirk, lounging between the roots of a msuba in a shaft of sunlight that illuminated a haze of golden flies. He’d been stuffing himself with passionfruit and his front was matted with juice and seeds. And then I saw the white bars of his ribs and all the turmoil in there and understood that the seeds were flies and the juice was Kirk’s blood. Archie darted toward him, then away, and Mama barked feverishly at the air and pounded the earth on all fours. Victoria raced back and forth, blindly, very fast, cheeping, and I realized that something very bad was happening. Archie darted up to Kirk in his cloud of flies, lifted his hand and let it drop. He recoiled and did it again and Kirk’s hand did nothing—and still I didn’t really make the connection that he was dead, like a bushpig or a blue-tailed monkey could be dead. It was too hard to grasp: Kirk, our heroic rain-dancer, our thunder-conquering king!

We moved on, quickly, without grooming, and Mama’s hair wouldn’t stop bristling beneath me. Death was sticking to us. I became frightened because I thought I’d done something very wrong and was going to be punished for it. It hadn’t been me, I wanted Mama to understand. It was a leopard—or maybe he’d fallen out of a tree, like Stroheim! We crossed the stream back to where we’d been when Mama’s swelling started, and the feeling of Death forded the water with us. It climbed up among the empty nests of our old roosting tree and slept beside us too, and woke with us in the night to the echo of more of those far-distant cracks, louder in the blackness, and when morning came, slow and white and wet, we saw another
adult male, whose name I didn’t know, caught in a tangle of branches high above, gnawed by the baboons or leopard that had left him where he was hanging and much more dead than Kirk.

Even Victoria and I knew it then, I think. What else could have done this if not the hostiles? All we knew about hostiles was that they were hostile. In fact, it was absolutely typical hostile behavior, if you thought about it. Mama climbed to the crown of a custard-apple tree and pant-hooted in four directions, but got no answer: the whole forest seemed to be teeming with death. At a fast trot she led us up one of the deep-grassed ridges that spoked off from the escarpment and gave a view of the canopy below but there were no black blobs moving in the treetops, no chains of dots leaving a wake through the long-grassed slopes; neither friends nor enemies. High up we climbed, toward the escarpment, into the tatters of mist that beaded our coats, and then, where the ridge finally flattened and was reabsorbed by the forest of the escarpment, at last we heard a long, low hoot from ahead, and though Archie bristled, I recognized the voice as Spence’s.

Poor Spence was limping. Fucking hostiles, I remember thinking (my translation). He gave another weak hoot and tried to move toward us out of the trees and down the ridge, but wasn’t really able to. He whimpered and tried to lift his arm to show us, and Mama set me down in the tall grass and scampered up toward him, followed, after a nervous grin, by Archie. Victoria pitter-pattered after them, through the skeins of mist that scudded over the ridge. Mama paused, and held out a hand to her, and as she caught up, and the three of them got to the edge of the trees, Spence suddenly disappeared from sight and the hostiles came screaming out of the long grass toward them.

Archie was engulfed in a tide of bristling black and that was the last I saw of him. I never saw Victoria again; the last I remember
of my sister is the sight of her catching up to Mama. I fled back down the ridge the way we’d come, suddenly capable of running, and when I fell, I looked back up the ridge and saw Mama running toward me, and a couple of hostiles—except they weren’t hostiles, of course, but Cary, who once carried me down from a msuba tree, and Spence, who used to feed me bits of moonfruit—running shoulder to shoulder with her. She fell, or was tripped, and then Cary was stamping on her, and others were catching up. From the tall grass I watched her try to rise. But Cary and Spence and Tom were on her—all my fathers were on her, screaming with hatred, with outrage. Stroheim nipped in and out, capering with excitement, but I didn’t see him strike. It didn’t even occur to me to try to rescue her. I just took off down the side of the ridge where the slope was so steep I could almost fall down it into the upper canopy of the trees below.

I blundered through a maze into the lower canopy, where I was hidden, and blundered on until I had to stop and rest in a little cradle of branches. After a while, there didn’t seem to be much reason to go anywhere; Mama was my only home, and she would find me if she could. So I didn’t move, except once to get some leaves when the cradle began to hurt. I breathed and slept and didn’t grow hungry, and let the rain fall on me as it fell on everything else.

What happened to us, dearest humans, was nothing special. I suppose Cary must have staged a coup against old Kirk, and then against his two other main rivals. But who cares? It was just politics. Sooner or later, every creature that lives in a forest has to learn that there’s only the hierarchy and alphadom and the constant dance of death. From the termites to the turacos to the marmosets and pythons, from the mongooses to the leopards and the apes, every one of us, every second of every day, was simply trying to pass on its death to another. Even the bushpigs at their mothers’
teats, stealing milk from their brothers and sisters, and the trees and the grasses too. Everything that lived, murdered. We were meant to be the best of all creatures, the paragon of the animals, and we also were mired in it. I watched the turacos around me stab the caterpillars and kept thinking there had to be something—one thing—that wasn’t hostile to its bones. But everything was steeped in death: all creatures great and small.

I stayed in my tree for what seemed a long time; a day and a night, and a day, and another night, and another day. I heard the turacos’ chicks screaming for their caterpillars; I watched the many-colored bird alight and fly off and wondered whether I might become a bird now that I meant never to go to ground again. I heard hooting and barking close by; glazedly I watched Cary make the leap from the foliage of the sloe tree next to me; I saw the way the branch gave as he landed; I saw the turacos and the orioles scatter, the butterflies explode, and the streams of ants not minding; and I watched him prise open the ribcage of the tree toward where I lay cradled. And only when he was almost upon me did I realize I wasn’t reconciled to it: I didn’t want to die. To my surprise, I wanted to survive.

There was no chance that I could outclimb Cary: I waited until my own branch was quivering with his weight, and then dropped back down into what I had once thought was my own little princedom. Then I was running again on rubbery legs, and I thought the worst that could happen was that I’d be chased off and could maybe find Mama or Victoria before the leopards got me. But I saw that closer to me than Cary, and even more frightening, was Stroheim. He was almost
with exultation at the way his world had suddenly become a whole lot simpler. Big dumb Stroheim, who later, by the way, went on to a nothing-much career in Hollywood. In fact, MGM used to loan him out to RKO, where he’d
occasionally crop up in tenth-rate B’s, bull-necked, horse-faced and bald, staring into the camera with a kind of George Raft aura. If you just wanted an ape to sit there and not bump into the furniture, then he could do a job for you. He was no worse than a stuffed one, you could say that much: he
perfectly convincingly. Sorry, I digress. Where was I? Of course—about to be murdered by an extra. I veered down a slope, fell, felt Stroheim’s fingers missing my heels and then catching them, and then, as we skated over a slippery slick of leaves, he was on top of me and then horribly around me and Cary was skidding into us as we both fell together. So it was in a ball of enemies—a sort of writhing bolus like you see snakes make—that I died and began to ascend to heaven.

I was shot up toward the canopy, toward the sky. I rose faster than you can fall. I understood that I would become a bird—it all made sense. A many-colored bird was what you became when you died. And then we sagged to a halt and hung, the three of us, still tangled in our ball of hatred, denied entry to the next stage of life.

About a foot from my face I saw an ape, white-faced, complexly coated, smiling. This, I would later discover, was Mr. Tony Gentry, whose funeral in Barstow, California, 1982, would be such a solemn affair that I ended up playing a few of my favorite atonal noodles (not
available on CD, but there are plans) on the organ to cheer everyone up a bit.

“Got three!” shouted the ape. “Three of them, having a little play together!”

Humanity. Thank God for you.

We were lowered to the ground, separated, and gently ushered into wooden cubes. Kind hands urged us inside our chambers; gentle voices urged us to eat. I saw old friends in other chambers—my old playmates Frederick and little Tyrone. And others: the innocent
and the guilty alike. I was pretty sure we were still alive, though it did seem equally likely that we were all dead and in another world. But I didn’t see Mama, or Victoria.

Two mind-bendingly peculiar days later, we were sitting in a monsoon in a town that Don’s pretty sure used to be called Kigoma, an old West African term that translates as “Salvation.”

Sailing Away!

When I think back to my last day in Africa, I can’t help but remember something Maureen O’Sullivan said to me at the very beginning of my career. “There, there, Cheeta. The hurt will die down. It has to. Otherwise none of us could stand life!”

Maureen’s rather breezily delivered comment, by the way, was an attempt, some fifty minutes into
Tarzan and His Mate
, to offer consolation on the death of my on-screen mother. My on-screen mother who had just been impaled on the horn of a stampeding rhinoceros
while saving Jane’s life!
She said it briskly, in her trademark singsong, which made it seem as if she was cheering me up after a surprise omission from the varsity lacrosse team rather than helping me come to terms with a bereavement she herself had caused. I’m getting off the point but if Maureen’s daughter, Mia Farrow, had been fatally gored while saving
life, I’d have gone straight to her with an apology that I’d at least have tried to make sound sincere. (Though—dare one say it—that would have been one hell of a popular rhino in Hollywood.)

But that was Maureen all over, I’m afraid. She couldn’t even
affection for animals although, to be perfectly honest and give the harmless old trout her due, it was probably just me she disliked.
To be completely,
honest, I don’t think she ever recovered from the downgrading implied by that title. Not
Tarzan and Jane
, you’ll note, or
Tarzan and His
Wife, but
Tarzan and His Mate.
That is, a buddy movie built around the electric chemistry of the Weissmuller-Cheeta double act. A bitter pill for Maureen to swallow, that title, but there, there, my dear, the hurt will die down. Actually, had she and I ever been able to communicate, that’s exactly what I would have told her when she was, yet again, sobbing and swearing at me after I’d gotten in another good nip to her flank—“There, there, Maureen. The hurt will die down!” See how she’d have liked
for consolation while she was wailing at the crew to fetch her Band-Aids and iodine!

BOOK: Me Cheeta
9.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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