Changing Places

Jochen Mariss
 
Changing Places
Jablonsky looks him in the eye. They are almost black and are looking at him intensely. Or do they eye Mrs. Blum standing next to him? It is the look of an old man. Knowing and wise. A little sad, perhaps. The leathery, black hands clasp the iron bars. A kind of smile flits through his face, he bares his yellow teeth, scratches his neck. Now he begins to examine his fur. He pokes his long fingers into the fur on his belly, puts something in his mouth and chews on it. Then he looks at Jablonsky again. Or Mrs Blum. It is hard to tell.
“He seems so... human,” says Jablonsky. “I wonder what's going on inside him.”
Juliana Blum casts a scrutinizing glance through the bars, then she says, “He is asking himself exactly the same question. He's wondering what's going on inside both of us.”
“It's possible.” Jablonsky feels the desire to take Mrs. Blum's hand.
Mrs. Blum squeezes her eyes together. “I guess he thinks humans are pretty silly. He thinks it's silly the way we look at him and stare at him.”
“Man-ape,” says Jablonsky. “Ape-man. He looks like he feels sorry for us. Like he feels sorry for humans.” Jablonsky wonders what he might find pitiful about people. Then he says, “Perhaps because we're born naked and have to cover our bodies with artificial fur.”
“Or because of our puny hands.” Mrs. Blum looks at her hands as if she were seeing them for the first time. “These arms with which one cannot even climb. Humans are condemned to walk on the ground their entire lives.”
“Still, humans have mastered walking upright,” says Jablonsky.
“Walking upright is overrated by most people”, Mrs. Blum thinks against it. “It is power-consuming, unstable and makes us defenceless. A small stumble, a strong gust, a punch, and the person falls over.” Mrs. Blum shakes her head. “And then our sensitive feet.” She's looking at her shoes. “Even to halfway run, we need to squeeze them into leather footgear."
A young woman holding hands with a girl stop in front of the cage next to Juliana Blum and Jablonsky. The two are looking at the apes.
“Mum, I don't like the apes being locked up,” says the girl.
“Well, after all they have a nice big enclosure,” replies the woman. She reads the sign on the grating. “Sumatran habitat,” she says. “Threatened with extinction.”
The girl asks, “Mom, what is extinction?”
The mother doesn't want to reply. She says, “Let's go see the wolves.”
An ape-boy approaches. He takes the hand of the big ape and peers curiously through the bars to Jablonsky and Mrs. Blum. Now the big ape leans forward a little and looks at the back of the information board attached to the grating.
“What is he doing there?” says Jablonsky. “Why is he staring at that sign?”
“It looks like he's reading.” Juliana nods as if to confirm her own words. “Maybe there's something written on the back of the notice board. And the ape reads through it.”
“Did you hear that?” Jablonsky gives Mrs. Blum a brief side glance. “He cleared his throat. As if he was about to say something.”
“Look, he's moving his lips.” Mrs Blum takes Jablonsky's hand.
“What's he saying?” Jablonsky wonders how strong her hand is.
“Shh!” she does and listens. “I can't believe it. He's reading the words to the sign. You hear that? ‘Habitat: Europe and North America. Threatened with extinction.’”
“The way he looks at us," says Jablonsky. "Did he just say 'no wonder’?”
The ape scratches his breast. The ape boy looks up at him.
“You hear that?” Mrs Blum shakes her head in disbelief. “The little ape also speaks. ‘Dad, what does extinction mean?’ he just asked.”
“Yes, I heard.” Jablonsky scratches his head exaggeratedly. The little ape pulls on the big ape's hand as if he wanted to make him move on. “Do you hear the little monkey whining? He said, ‘Come on, Daddy, let's go see the Chinese.’”
The apes disappear through a flap door. Mrs. Blum leans over to Jablonsky, very close, her scent wafts into his nose. Then she whispers, “As he left, the old ape muttered, ‘Well, at least they have an enclosure with plenty of room to run.’”

Translation by ShanWardell
 
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