Apollonia, a Tanzanian chimpanzee who played violin for the Cleveland Orchestra, had gotten herself into trouble. Deep in the midst of a tragedy of thwarted love and ambition, Apollonia had gone on her first drunken tear and wound up in the dog pound, where she had bit off the thumb of a gawking pound keeper.
And so it was that, after a year of perfectly responsible, sedate living alongside her Cleveland neighbors, Apollonia learned that she, like so many performing chimps before her, had “outlived the age-window of safe interaction with human caregivers.”
First of all, since when had these friends become Caregivers?
And no, it seemed they really didn’t care. For in a regret-laden missive adapted from a form-letter auditionee rejection, Apollonia read the verdict: “…Despite the obvious merit of your work, we are not be able to continue to offer you a position with us at this time……” And further down, in a different font which to Apollonia conveyed the real sting of the insult, she read, “…given the unusual circumstances and our legal and moral obligations to all our performing artists, The Cleveland Orchestra has made it our responsibility to provide for your needs until death. After lengthy discussions with Benefits Administration, the Board was able to find a clause in your contract allowing for your early retirement at the Retirement Home for Great Apes in Mulberry, Florida.”
Apollonia had not been expecting this. She had expected rehab, a few days’ jail time at worst. But no: that one, drunken rage had been enough to banish her from their midst forever. She had been warehoused; there was nothing left for her but to die.
Though shocked – and shocked for many months afterward — she did not, on the whole, miss human-chimp interaction. It had always been musical company she craved. At the Home, the chimpanzees and orangutans roamed large habitats and slept inside in sleep rooms and ran above the forest floor in tunnels, all built of caging materials that separated caretakers and volunteers from the apes. Considered spacious and humane, these arrangements constituted a move up for most chimps. But Apollonia had never known confinement like this in her life. The Home abounded in high-minded scientists, conservationists, and animal-loving volunteers, but at the end of the day she, a violinist of exquisite artistry, still lived in a cage. Somehow it rendered tawdry every other pleasure.
And despite the name of the place, “Retirement Home for Great Apes,” Apollonia considered herself the only genuinely Great ape there. She alone had learned to scrape a bow across the strings, had learned Boccherini, Albinoni, Mozart and Vivaldi; only she among the inmates had ever recorded baroque and contemporary solos for violin, not to mention that series of beautifully reinterpreted tangos.
The worst part of her new life was that she did not feel the music inside her any more. A constant mild depression left her bored and unable to take up her violin, Twinkle, which lay in the sleep room, underneath her canvas hammock, in a curvy, dusty case whose lock only Apollonia knew how to open. She woke in the foggy early mornings to go outside and listen to the grackles, the parakeets, the mourning doves and woodpeckers, and truly could not think of a way to improve on their song, nor any reason whatsoever to join in.
Perhaps it was the yawning soulless gap in this new, music-less life that drove Apollonia, once master of the bow, to take up the pen.
Well, not pen, exactly. She found most writing implements too small for her nimble but large fingers. Computer keyboards? Out of the question. The volunteers brought her long crayons roughly made of tree branches, bored through, and filled with colored wax. For them she made large drawings of stick figures and once, out of annoyance with their sanctimony, two chimps copulating. They oooed and ahhhed and taped them up on the walls of her sleep room.
But at night, in her room in the sleep house, she climbed up the rope rigging, and perched herself on the highest sleep shelf; and there, in an enormous old ledger book, Apollonia began to keep a secret diary. She could not write as fast as her mind worked, and there was a permanent frustration to the process. So at first, in cryptic, wobbly prose, she recorded only her activities:
Got up early. Loose stool. Pilates video til seven. Swing on swing set six hours straight. Checkup with vet. Realize nice to have shopping and food prep done for me. Swung in hammock counting blessings.
Then she began to record the progress of her emotional life:
Six months’ cohabitation with primate brethren. Best grooming have ever enjoyed. Has calmed my nerves. Nervous stink about me gone. Need to feel superior has faded. Twinkle, my violin, still locked up, but I turn away from anger, deep wound of betrayal, to ask self, might new residence offer hidden opportunity?
The other apes didn’t bother her. She spent all day with them, and they had their nighttime nesting partners already. This particular sleep room was hers. The humans never came in a cage with an ape, either – except in the case of one volunteer janitor with poor hygiene and terrible acne. On some nights this young man, not seeing Apollonia on the uppermost sleep shelf, came in to smoke a joint and see if there were droppings to pick up. Only once, his key already in the lock to the cage, did he glance up and see her. He had caught her holding her crayon. But she held up one of her a stick figure pictures that she kept precisely for this purpose: a baby chimp giving a mommy chimp a red flower. After a couple of minutes of staring suspiciously at her, the volunteer janitor nodded, took his key out of the lock, and left Apollonia in peace.
Several weeks into her diary project, she began to record questions she asked herself in her most idle hours.
How do we know trees don’t dance? Oaks might be entire frozen choreographies. Believe might be dancing but very slow. Must dream, too. Why not?
She was aware she was becoming, inevitably, more figurative, more “literary.” The old, Should-Be-Concertmaster-in-Cleveland-Orchestra Apollonia would have already been imagining glorious literary soirees at Greenwich Village book stores. The new, Retirement-Home-for-Great-Apes-Over-Observed-Chimp specimen Apollonia did not. She wrote uninterested, at first, in publication. She only sought to…..to feel out the truth – not of facts, but of the stranger, more ephemeral dilemmas of existence itself: purpose and posterity, for example. Like it or not, there would be a record of her, somewhere, after she died. And as she wrote and wrote in the long lonely dark hours, she finally realized that she might have some real power over her own legacy, if she only left the right documents. Apollonia was determined that whatever they eventually found in her secret stash of writings, it would challenge these scientists to their very core.