Down went the baboon. Its brother stood over with a forked branch, ready to deliver another blow. The human crowd above held their breath and aimed their cameras. One human squeezed the handle of a duffel bag.
Vicente Xaxalpa liked monkeys. From the time old world monkeys adorned the pages of a worn and barely-held Zoobook rested in his schoolbag to the first time he saw a chimpanzee in person at the Fleurville Zoo, primatekind kept itself kindled in his mind. His little cousin Chale Jr. watched along the railing as the siblings fought, and he spoke of his sisters and how the baboons brought on all-too-familiar sights.
Vicente pointed at the downed monkey and said, "This is where the reaction instinct kicks in. Kosha'll bounce back up and run."
Chale's forehead squished against the glass, and he nearly slipped off the rail and onto his behind.
"Why are they fighting?" a passerby asked.
Vicente twisted and lifted the brim of his hat. The answer, "Fieval pushed Kosha into the pond," earned a nasty laugh.
An image flashed through the back of Chale's eyes: Kosha ripped the branch out of Fieval's hands and smacked him with it until he learned a primal lesson. Every ear-tickling gulp and squeeze of the fingers, however, did not bring this image to life. Kosha remained felled, but Vicente could see what most could not— that familiar fire in its eye known to any cornered brawler. The monkey was planning a move against its prowling brother. Other baboons crowded around, several taking on defensive postures. Each new motion and individual doubled the tension.
"They're known to be violent. One of the most violent primates." Vicente lowered his Panama hat with a nudge. "I'd like to imagine that if they had sapience, they'd prove once and for all to us humans that we are not as degenerate as we think we are."
A man walked up to Vicente, his face so cragged and weathered that some thought it to be a special-effects mask. Yet Vicente knew that face well and briskly shook his hand and the two exchanged a shared laugh.
"Anton, hey there. You almost missed this legendary fight." Vicente turned to Chale. "Remember Anton Golitsyn?"
Chale nodded and gave the man a quick wave. "I didn't know baboons used weapons."
Golitsyn stepped over to the window and said, "Actually, they were one of the first primates noted to use tools besides humans." He turned to Vicente and said, "I heard you have a new girlfriend?"
Vicente waved him off. "She's fine, she's fine. I told her I was coming here and she wanted to—"
All at once the volume increased as the crowd cheered and jeered. Kosha sprung and chased Fieval across the enclosure with ear-tearing screeches and squeals. Then came the clapping and whoops from the humans when Fieval slipped on a patch of mud straight into the cold waters. To celebrate, Kosha watched his brother for several seconds more and then knuckle-walked to a clearing where he fed on illegal audience-tossed fruits and nachos. The crowd of baboons did nothing. Chale liked to think they were giving him the old 'Stop fighting and don't ever do that again (but that was totally cool)' treatment.
Vicente turned to Golitsyn and said, "That's the life of a monkey."
"Oh I'm very aware. I remember working in Tanzania— I've told you this, right?"
"A few times but different things each time."
Golitsyn nodded and said, "Well, the point is, I'm aware of the life cycle of primates. The howling, the prowling, the swinging. The *mating*. The screaming, the eating, the fighting.
"The life of a simian's always going to have the certain impulses and streams of action," he went on. "And hamadryas baboons are the ones where males have to show dominance if they want to win a harem. Kosha's never been a fan of being humiliated, as few beings would be." Again, both laughed.
Chale pulled himself away as the scene calmed. Along came another boy: his best friend Jimmy Hu. Both walked away from the men, though Vicente kept an eye on them as well as another figure distant in the crowd: a man in white with hair and a beard to rival Jesus Christ. Thus he followed the boys, and Golitsyn followed him. The duffel bag slung over his shoulder attracted many eyes and turned the heads of multiple passersby who had to convince themselves it was real. However, Vicente did not struggle with its weight— only its form and having to navigate such a cumbersome size in a tight crowd.
Jimmy asked, "What happened? Did somebody fall in?"
"Two monkeys started fighting to the death!"
Vicente broke Jimmy's shock by saying, "Don't believe him. It was just a sibling rivalry. Just like when Chale gets jumped by his sisters."
Chale smacked his lips. "Nuh uh. They don't hit me with sticks. Usually." And the boys laughed, though Vicente noticed Jimmy looked several times upon the bag and then to him as if expecting the Man in the Zoot Suit to tell them just why he was carrying an empty duffel bag. Both boys had an idea. In a place so filled with creatures of wild and exotic origins and with a man as shady and checkered as Vicente, the duffle was soon to smell of piss and wet fur, or maybe it would be hissing by the end of the day. Either way, Chale wanted to catch a peak of his big cousin's big catch.
"I thought someone died. I heard a bang."
"One of them just hit the other with a big stick is all."
Jimmy's eyes curved. "That was the bang, seriously?"
"Yep. Feeval, Fieval I think, hit his little brother with a stick that hard." Chale grabbed his plastic fruit punch Kool-Aid bottle and took a heroic swig. "And then he fell into the water like a dork." The two followed the elder Xaxalpa towards the gorilla enclosure, and this time they were far more excited to watch the mundane routine of the hulking masses of muscle and hair.
And the feeling was shared. The duffle bag's handle would've snapped if tugged any harder. A chance glance brought Chale's eyes to Vicente's hand— the strain on those muscles! His older cousin's olive skin seemed to darken to a pained ruddiness, and his fingers tore into his palm to the point that any more pressure would've broken the skin.
This didn't beguile the boy anywhere near as much as the matter of why. Nothing was in the duffle bag— nothing. For all of Vicente's tenseness, he did not struggle against its weight. It floated and flopped about with every bit of motion.
The tension calmed. He and Jimmy exchanged a glance when they knew Vicente wasn't looking.
"You alright?" asked Golitsyn.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm only marveling at the incredible power they have. It only recently struck me just how strong they are."
Neither of the boys particularly bought this brush-off.
"You know, good fellow, I do wonder quite a bit about just how strong primates can become. I've heard quite a few anecdotes of gorillas like our friend Meki down there being roughly fifteen times the strength of a man."
Chale and Jimmy gawked. Fifteen times stronger? Their eyes told each other the same thing: 'That's amazeballs.'
Golitsyn laughed politely. "That's largely a myth. We know gorillas have a certain amount of pulling strength that is much greater than humans, but measures of strength are a bit too inaccurate to say for certain on any particular number. In some ways they may be fifteen times; in others, only three times. It depends on what you're measuring."
For a brief moment, Vicente stooped as if he was setting his bag on the ground. However he flinched and stood erect, looking down to make sure the bottom had not touched the cobblestone path. Once certain, he said, "Fascinating nonetheless to imagine creatures so similar to ourselves that are capable of drawing up such extreme reserves of power. Three times the strength of a man is still an otherworldly advantage over us. Just imagine for a moment that they were, say, thirty times our strength."
Golitsyn waved him off. "That's silly and not needed. At some point in the wild, strength reaches diminishing returns unless you have comic book powers. And to be fair, humans aren't all that weak for primates."
Chale and Jimmy sat on a bench next to an information kiosk. "I didn't know they were that strong! That's awesome."
Vicente spoke with narrowed eyes. "Tell me, Anton. In that dismal fantasy I used to talk about— remember?— I always wanted to know how different our lot would be if gorillas trained themselves and could speak our language. Would we keep them in cages?"
"Still wishing for Sasquatch?"
He grinned to frown. "What? You changed your mind?"
"Not exactly. I'm just a tad..." A roll of the hands didn't bring the words.
Golitsyn offered, "Down on the myth?"
And it worked. "That's about right."
Both of their eyes focused on the gorilla camp as another crowd gathered. "Oh look at that— more violence."
Vicente curled his lips to say, "Pacifists my ass."
A gorilla brought an ashy tree branch across its mate's face like a droog. The Alpha male charged towards the two with bassy shouts, intense stares, and baring of teeth. This put the offender on his chest, desperate to submit and avoid a lashing.
Chale shouted, "Wow! Two monkey fights in one day."
"There's your sisters over there." Jimmy craned his neck over his friend's head and spotted the crowd of siblings. His heart fluttered.
Chale scoffed and said, "They're probably looking for me." Vicente gave the girls a passing glance and turned back to the doctor.
"To drag you to the birds?"
"Prolly so!" Chale then said, "I wanna see the sea lions."
"I wanna see the lions."
"Ooh, yeah." Another sugar swig. "And the tiger. I heard that one of the tigers barked!"
Vicente raised an eyebrow and turned, then disregarded the two.
Chale went on, "That's what Tyler said. Dude, think about it. What if cats could bark?"
One of his sisters looked his way, so he ducked behind Jimmy's profile.
"False alarm; she was just making a big thing with her hands, like this." Jimmy gestured wildly, his arms swinging about in an arc.
Chale kept squatting. "I'm fine down here. I can see a squirrel over there too!"
Golitsyn peered through the sunlight at nothing in particular. "Whenever you're ready to talk, we can head to my office."
As Vicente tried to reply, he staggered. Blue and brown uniform, walkie talkie, segway, and 1970s mustache = zoo security. What grip he had on the handle tightened to near fusion.
"Pleasant afternoon, officer." The other eyes shifted back, forth, and down. Only Golitsyn focused on the guard.
"Hey there. Just wanted to check the bag is all."
"If you must, though I ought to warn you..." He lifted the bag higher with a twitch and swung it around. "You won't find much in here."
Golitsyn smiled and said, "It's alright, Mr. Vance. My friend here is trustworthy enoguh. Unlike some more suspicious faces." He aimed his body forward, and Vance looked over his shoulder.
Vicente and Chale saw again the man in white, this time lording over two enraptured goth girls.
One last glance at the duffle bag convinced Vance of something, though of what Vicente could not know. Only that he pardoned himself and rolled towards the man in white.
The exhale that erupted from Vicente's lips turned all three heads. Golitsyn frowned. Vicente bowed slightly and turned back to the group. As the guard slipped out of earshot, he leaned over to the boys and said, "But if you ever actually do have something you shouldn't, never give the authorities permission to search."
Jimmy whispered back, "Why?"
Vicente lifted up the bag and said, "If I had something in here, if I didn't have something... doesn't really matter. When they suspect you of wrongdoing, they will find the evidence." He then turned to Chale with a wag of the finger. "Don't try to convince others that you're innocent. They've already decided you're guilty. The harder you fight back, the more obvious your guilt."
Jimmy began to say something, only for Vicente's hand to cut it off. The boys stepped away and Jimmy whispered, "Dude, your cousin's probably got drugs in there!"
Chale looked about, suddenly overcome by a sense that all ears were trained on them. All eyes passed over them for a few milliseconds longer than necessary, more people walked their way than should happen naturally. The heat in his cheeks turned into tunnel vision.
How embarrassing. Worse: what if the police arrested them and he had to go to jail? The scene played out in his head and it was just as embarrassing there. His sisters would never let him live it down.
Chale looked forward and felt a bit of heat in his heart. Vicente was the strangest person he had ever known in his twelve years. So strange in fact that a much younger Chale once wrote him as the main character of a goofy light-novel out of a sense that the Man in the Zoot Suit surely went on otherworldly adventures in a bizarro underworld.
But the duffle bag was strangeness without justification. Only because Vicente and Golitsyn walked towards the chimpanzee enclosure did he feel enough desire to again be seen next to his cousin. However, he looked again towards his sisters— all of whom now walked round where the turtles and the penguins swam— with a sudden sense of safety leaving with them.