Friday, June 16, 2006

Caterpillar Tracks

** A short story I wrote last year. Please, please take the time to comment after you've read it. Feedback makes writers very happy, even if it's negative :-) **

“Where food?” asked the chicken again, before ruffling its feathers and moving its bowels.

Albert sighed. He would be cleaning his armchair (which he had sat the chicken upon in an attempt to create a learning atmosphere) again tonight. Chickens were no good at this either he decided, and yet this one had seemed so promising. He had managed to make it tap its feet to the two times tables, and it had even seemed on the verge of being able to recite the alphabet up to the letter ‘f’. But alas, like the rest of its species, the moment Albert had put the chicken under any sort of pressure, it had released the remains of its lunch through its backside.

Albert sighed again. Another day, another failed experiment. So I am alone, he thought, for what seemed to be the thousandth time, as he trudged back through the darkening undergrowth. Alone amidst this great teeming mass of life that is the jungle.

Here and there stars began to blink into existence, brightly dotting what small patches of lavender-blue sky that could be seen from the jungle floor. Before long Albert began to hear the faint scufflings of things unseen, and they were soon joined by the raucous cries and chatterings of a hundred other creatures, all waiting impatiently for the night’s festivities to begin. Albert peered about, searching in vain for the path that would lead him back to the clearing his family had made their home. Now and then a nocturnal insect would flash across his field of vision, a fast-moving streak of grey in the fading light. Eventually Albert lashed out at one in frustration, but watched it buzz smugly away, completely unharmed. At least his mother wouldn’t be worried, Albert thought to himself with quiet bitterness. She found it unthinkable that a gorilla could get lost in his own jungle.

And when it came down to it, that was Albert’s problem: he was condemned to be unique, to be yet another one-of-a-kind. He had known it for a long time, ever since he was four years old, when he had chosen to measure his brother’s back rather than scratch it, as was the custom. His mother had known it then too – but not at first, as Albert’s brother found out to his cost. Of course, Albert’s mother had been unable to understand Albert’s odd behaviour (which could almost have been blasphemy, if gorillas had such a thing), and her immediate conclusion had been that Albert’s brother had been hitting Albert on the head, and in doing so had scrambled his brains. Rather unfortunately, it had taken Albert’s brother three (painful) weeks to convince her otherwise.

Luckily though (for all concerned), as time had passed, Albert’s family had begun to accept Albert for what he was: a shrewd and perceptive gorilla, one often occupied by questions of physics and philosophy while his peers remained obsessed with the twin joys of back-scratching and procreation. Indeed, after the initial curiosity had worn off, Albert had been left to conduct his experiments in relative peace. However, before long Albert began to feel that simple experiments in the jungle were no longer enough; his intellect craved more sophisticated fuel. And so, one balmy night, Albert had found himself standing in the nearest village, wearing an enormous trench-coat and matching bowler hat, on the doorstep of the local library. He had stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do, but then, as his eagerness had overcome his caution, he had simply walked through the wall, gathered the entirety of the Classics bookshelf in his immense arms, and promptly walked out again. It still confounded him today as to why, when he had finally found a newspaper report of the night’s events, he had read that “nothing of any great value had been stolen”.

The fruits of Albert’s great heist had triggered a great spurt of creativity in him; he had become well versed in all forms of English literature, and then, when he had given all this new information time to settle in his brain, he had begun to invent all sorts of wonderful contraptions, which he would then build from whatever resources he had at hand. It was one of his more successful creations that greeted Albert, when he finally found himself back in his jungle clearing.

It was a collection of tracks, each one lovingly crafted from the longest, most supple reeds and bound together by the strongest grasses, which covered the entire perimeter of the clearing. Each track was made from a reed of a different hue, so, with the tracks arranged as they were, they seemed less to encircle the clearing but to flow around it. Here and there a junction was placed, connecting each of the myriad tracks to one another, creating a dizzyingly complex yet beautifully logical whole. But the tracks were not the main attraction of Albert’s invention; they were simply the supporting act. The main attractions were the things that actually used the tracks: about a dozen giant green caterpillars, of which the longest was the size of Albert’s leg, and of which even the smallest could make a meal of a wandering finger. These caterpillars rode the tracks day and night, crossing bridges and rushing through tunnels, stopping only to be refuelled with the odd sugary fruit, completely at the whim of the young gorillas that sat before the many control switches that dotted the clearing.

Albert gazed at his creation for a while, a rueful smile playing on his lips. Some of the outermost tracks were falling into disrepair, and a few of the bridges looked close to collapse. He turned and walked over next to his mother, who was curled up in a deep sleep. He began to lie down next to her, but while doing so, caught a glimpse, out of the corner of his eye, of three small gorillas, each sitting in front of a control switch, watching the caterpillar tracks in rapt fascination. Albert smiled. There is hope yet, he thought to himself, before drifting off into sleep.


The sun was almost directly overhead when Albert finally awoke. It beat down upon the jungle relentlessly, its rays bouncing from leaf to leaf on their way down to the ground far below. Albert almost fancied that he could hear the sun shining down, in the ever-present jungle drone that had lurked in the backdrop of his life for as long as he could remember. But of course that was just a saying, one of the hundreds that Albert’s mother had told him when he was little; one of the hundreds that he had later proven wrong after carrying out his research. The drone, Albert had concluded, was of course simply the sound of a million flies and mosquitoes going about their business. However, to Albert’s dismay, his explanation had gone unheeded, as it had neither the beauty nor the grandeur required to sway the other gorillas from their own beliefs, which at least had the weight of history on their side.

Nevertheless, thought Albert as he stood up, at least they believe in something. At least we still have that in common. He stretched out his arms, yawned, and then ambled towards the centre of the clearing, where the rest of his family were sat. Before them was a magnificent assortment of fruits, from the garden variety orange to the rare ‘wumdee’ fruit (a cousin of the coconut), which, when broken open, was known to release a toxic gas so deadly it could wipe out an entire army within forty-five minutes. Naturally though, the overwhelming majority of gorillas ignored these completely, and went straight for the bananas.

Albert chose a handful of berries, and then strolled over to where his grandparents were sitting. His grandmother gave him a warm smile, before stuffing an entire banana in her mouth and then clamping down on it with toothless gums. His grandfather had finished eating and had gone back to sleep, as had most of Albert’s other relatives. The few that were still awake were either staring listlessly at the sky, or, if they were younger, wrestling with each other. Albert stared at them for a while, his thoughts elsewhere.

Suddenly a piercing shriek cut through the morning haze, rattling Albert’s teeth and rudely jerking his grandfather awake. Sounds of a scuffle followed, and then Albert became aware of hoarse shouting, but these were not the shouts of a gorilla … they were human shouts. A human, here in the jungle! Albert jumped to his feet and sprinted off in the direction of the noise. Branches lashed at him as he ducked low-hanging vines and vaulted over protruding roots. Albert saw only ahead; either side of him was a fast-moving blur punctuated by the frenzied pounding of his heart.

Finally Albert reached his destination, and he stood there for a second, clutching his stomach and breathing in ragged gasps. In the shadow of an immense palm tree cowered a squat, balding man, his jacket around his waist and his glasses askew. Before him was a great hulking brute of a gorilla; it gibbered and cavorted menacingly in front of the man with a terrible bored malice in its eyes. In a flash Albert realised that the other gorilla was from a rival tribe, and, without thinking, let out a deafening roar and raised his enormous arms above his head. The other gorilla whirled around in shock, and realising that it was trespassing on another tribe’s territory, turned and beat a hasty retreat into the shrubbery.

Albert lowered his arms and breathed a sigh of relief. He moved slowly towards the man, and offered to help him up. But the man leapt backwards as if stung, his jowls quivering obscenely and his eyes moving rapidly back and forth, almost trying to escape their sockets.

“Don’t worry. I’m here to help”, said Albert, trying his friendliest voice. But the man let out a strangled scream, and before Albert could do or say anything more, half ran and half stumbled away into the undergrowth. Albert bellowed in frustration, and started after the man, but stopped again almost immediately. Chasing the man might do more harm than good, Albert decided, and besides, at least he was heading in the rough direction of the nearest village.

Disappointed, Albert turned back, but then noticed a beige jacket lying where the man had been. Albert looked at with amusement – it was long and quite thick, totally unsuitable for use in a jungle in the middle of summer. The man must have been a tourist, Albert mused. He picked it up carefully, but as he did so, a pale blue piece of paper dropped out of an inside pocket and fluttered to the ground. Albert bent to retrieve it, and then screwed up his eyes to read the small text that was printed on it. And then his hands began to shake; the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The paper was a ticket, a ticket for a ship leaving from a port that was only a day’s walk away. A ship bound for Europe

Albert stared at the ticket, his mind racing. The ship left the day after next, he calculated, at two o’ clock in the afternoon. And all that was written on the ticket was the date and time of departure, and the destination. No names or anything – nothing that could say whether the person holding the ticket was the one who had bought it. Two days…

With a start Albert realised that he was back in his clearing. He couldn’t even remember beginning to walk. One of his cousins noticed him standing there, absorbed by the paper he held in his hand. “Another book for your collection?” his cousin asked cheerfully. Albert gave him a faint smile but said nothing.

Finally, Albert walked over to where his mother and father were sitting.

“I might be going away”, he said to his mother quietly.

She turned to him and gave him a wide smile.

“I know that”, she said. “You go away somewhere every day.”

Albert shook his head.

“This is different. I’m talking about leaving the jungle for a while, to travel in a whole new continent, a whole new world. But I might not be able to come back for a long time. Years even.”

His mother looked at him tenderly, and planted a great, wet kiss on his cheek.

“As long as you’re back for dinner”, she said, before turning around again.

Albert stood up, a knot in his stomach and a lump in his throat. He began to run, no longer caring where he was going; not even bothering to shield himself from the vines and twigs that scratched at his face and arms. His legs began to scream at him in pain but still he did not stop. He kept running, on and on, up and up, until finally he had nowhere left to run, and stood at the highest point in the jungle, with a blood-red sunset splintering in his eyes. The world was still but the sky was ablaze; streaked with every single one of the infinite shades that lay between yellow and red. A flock of birds flew high above, their plumage luminescent, weaving in-between tattered clouds that were rimmed with fire.

Is this my last sunset? Albert asked himself. Can I do this? Leave my home, leave my family; leave behind everything I’ve ever known… for what? For enlightenment? To be with humans? Humans who would run away as soon as they see me, and return in the night with their cages and their knives? You have your disguise, said a voice in Albert’s head. What disguise? he countered. A hat and a coat? Not even a child would be fooled. They would understand your thoughts and ideas. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? But they’re not my people, replied Albert. They would never accept me; I could never be happy around them. You never know until you try, said the voice, with an air of triumph.

And Albert fell silent. It was right of course. Ever since that ticket had dropped from the man’s jacket his life had changed. Whatever happened now, whether he left or whether he stayed, things would never be the same again. Albert sat back, and at last he smiled. What the hell, he thought as he watched the sky; maybe a year of unhappiness is worth a lifetime of regret.


It was at the crack of dawn that Albert found himself back in his den, where he had talked to the chicken only a couple of days before, packing away all of his possessions into a small fur bag. Finally he straightened, put on his old trench-coat and hat, and swung his bag over one broad shoulder. He took the scenic route back to his clearing, and he stopped every couple of steps to look around, take a deep breath of fresh air, and attempt to etch every last detail into his memory.

He had fallen asleep watching the sunset – slept his last night alone – and was saddened a little by the fact. What’s done is done though, he said to himself, there’s no use in getting worked up about it. At long last Albert reached the start of his caterpillar tracks, and he grinned widely when he saw them. In the early morning light they seemed restored, not only to their former glory, but now they looked just how Albert had imagined them, and that was infinitely more beautiful than anything he could make. Indeed, he thought, all that was missing from the perfect picture was a few young gorillas to man the controls.

But there was nobody. And not only was there nobody at the control-switches, realised Albert with a stab of horror, but there wasn’t a soul in the entire clearing. His whole family had gone!

Albert looked around frantically. Here and there the grass looked crushed and trampled – evidently it had been slept on. But there the traces ended; there was no sign of any breakfast having been prepared or eaten, which was surprising in itself. With mounting alarm Albert began to call out, yelling for his family and shouting for help. At first there was nothing, but finally Albert heard a high-pitched howl that was soon joined by others. He smiled with relief – it was his brother’s voice – but then frowned, for it was not a cry that Albert had heard often: it was a cry of celebration, coming from beyond the trees. He hurried towards it, but, once he had reached its source, stopped dead, his eyes wide with surprise.

Gathered in the little glade in front of him were his family, all jumping and hollering with excitement, and, for the first time ever, they were standing in line, two lines to be exact, facing each other an arms length apart, with his mother, father and brother standing proudly at the head, smiling and waving at him. Albert felt his eyes begin to sting. They had formed a guard of honour, just for him. He began to walk through it, with his head held high, pausing to hug each and every member of his family as he passed them. With a smile he noticed that they were all proudly wearing banana skins on their heads – party hats of the most brilliant design.

Eventually Albert reached the end of the line, and stood facing his mother, father and brother. Before he could say anything they had enveloped him in a huge bear-hug – it seemed to last an eternity but was over in an instant.

“Goodbye”, said Albert’s mother.

“Good luck”, said his brother and father.

“Thank you”, said Albert, his voice cracking slightly. “And goodbye”.

And so he turned, gave a bow to the rest of his family, swung his bag onto his back once more, and walked away. His family, they waved after him, and continued waving, even after he had long vanished into the undergrowth.

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