My husband’s nose changed first—a nearly imperceptible spot-the-difference puzzle on a face I’d known for twenty-two years. Through our kitchen’s bay windows, the morning sunlight... [+]
To call this elegant metropolis “The City of the Ape” does it a considerable disservice, but it is impossible to avoid. Every time we speak of something being as old as the Ape, we reaffirm the city’s claim to popular fame, although the Ape is not in our opinion the best, let alone the only, reason to visit this ancient and sophisticated settlement on the eastern edge of the sprawling Wadimar Desert.
The walls of Castrapitheca, made of limestone, are incomplete. They were partly demolished after the final siege of the regional civil war which ended some three hundred years ago, and with the city at peace ever since, there has never been any need to restore or rebuild them. However, the longest surviving section of the wall provides a lovely, elevated walk through what is now the main commercial district. This promenade, where small bars and sophisticated restaurants have opened, is especially popular in the evening.
The city was once surrounded by forests, but over the course of a few hundred years they were felled for timber and charcoal, and the encroaching desert has gradually reduced the fertility of the surrounding countryside. There are few farms left; they sit like islands in the empty scrubland. The city is mainly reliant on trade now, and on the celebrated glassware it produces, an industry whose fine iridescent products can be found all over the world. The charcoal used by the glass industry, once a local product, must now be brought in from increasing distance, but the high price commanded by the superb rainbow glassware makes the transport costs well worthwhile.
Of course, the city also benefits from a stream of visitors keen to view the Ape. The city’s most well-known feature, to defer consideration of it no longer, is naturally the great cage of iron that stands in the main marketplace, a large square surrounded by covered walks. This Cage is of immemorial antiquity, made from a kind of iron the blacksmiths here can no longer produce, if ever they did; strong and nearly immune to rust. Fluted iron columns run vertically to form its walls, with similar ones in a grid, making up the roof; the Cage forms a cube about twice the height of a tall man. It contains a creature which resembles an ape in most respects – indeed, it is taken to be an ape, though as it is the only known specimen and cannot be closely examined, there may be some element of scientific doubt about the matter. It is around three times the size of the largest known gorilla, and its fur is mainly reddish brown in color, with two dark stripes running down its immensely muscular back. The Castrapithecans are a forgetful people, and they tell us that they do not remember how the Ape came to be in the Cage, or how the Cage came to be in the center of their marketplace; but there is good evidence of its presence throughout the city’s recorded history. There is no door in the Cage, so it is not clear how the gigantic tenant got inside; some hold that the whole Cage must have been lowered over the great primate while it was unconscious and then fastened into the stone of the ground; others say that the Ape was once small enough to slide between the bars.
Certainly the Ape grows a little every year, and most of the citizens accept that within the foreseeable future it will grow strong enough to break out of the Cage, which it can already shift and bend to a small degree. When that escape happens, there will be terrible destruction, because it is clear that the Ape is not in any way reconciled to its captivity, or tolerant of its human neighbors, even though they have fed it, given it straw bedding, and helped it grow for its whole life. Loud bellowing echoes through the central streets every day; the great beast stamps and pounds and bares its immense white fangs. At times it spends hours beating on the bars which confine it. It is dangerous to approach the Cage too closely even now, as the Ape can reach through the bars with its massive arms and seize unwary people nearby. Once in its grasp, none survive, but the occasional bloody death seems to encourage visitors more than it deters them.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Ape remains angry, after so many centuries of tedious and certainly uncomfortable confinement. The beast co-operates with the citizens only to the extent of hanging by all four limbs from the cage roof every morning while the soiled straw and discarded food is pulled out of the Cage with very long-handled rakes. The floor is then hosed down using the taps installed about ninety years ago; previously the job was done laboriously with buckets. Once the Cage is clean, fresh straw is poked into place, and the Ape descends again. As soon as it’s down, it resumes its threatening manner, beating its chest, screaming at visitors, and attempting to catch anyone who comes too close.
Yet there are no plans to kill the beast before it escapes. The citizens stopped feeding it many years ago, but the visitors take care of all that now, throwing the creature bananas and special loaves of bread produced expressly for the purpose by local bakeries. The bakers compete over whose ‘gorilla bread’ is best for the creature; the different varieties contain all kinds of exotic nuts, grains and dried fruit and sell at a premium price. Some bakers contend that their specially formulated loaves will nourish the beast without causing it to grow any larger, though no science backs these claims.
Some citizens refuse to believe that the beast is growing at all, though the evidence is clear; some take the more nuanced position that, while the Ape continues to grow, the rate at which it enlarges is diminishing, and that growth will cease altogether before it is strong enough to escape. Actual measurements (carried out at a distance and with various ingenious tools) suggest the opposite is the case: that in fact, the Ape grows a little faster every year; but these conclusions are controversial. Some Castrapithecans believe that the Cage is far stronger than we think, and will outlast the Ape, or at any rate, all citizens now alive, which in their eyes is the main concern. Others say that in due course a further cage may be built around the existing structure, though engineers say that if the Ape can break its current cage, it could also destroy any similar enclosure. The only practical way to confine the beast might be to fill the market square with masonry, sacrificing the space and entombing the Ape in stone, a course which no Castrapithecan is willing to contemplate.
Most citizens accept the reality of the coming catastrophe but maintain that losing the tourist trade generated by the Ape is something they cannot afford just now - or at all, except by the most careful, incremental stages. Others say it is well known by now that the world is in its last days anyway; they expect the much-prophesied catastrophe, whether in the end it proves to be fire or flood, to carry them off long before they feel the wrath of the Ape. In fact, they say, in certain lights we may see the Ape itself as another prophecy, sent by God to warn us that we must mend our ways or perish; that we are living already in the slowly advancing shadow of His vast and insatiable righteous anger. In that light, it appears that the Ape is a token of God’s special concern for Castrapitheca, since He took the trouble to send this one city its own striking and particular warning. If that is true, say the citizens, to kill or harm the Ape would be ungrateful and a kind of sacrilege.
It seems strange though, some visitors remark, to value the physical creature that carries this holy warning more than the actual message. If the Ape is a warning from God, should we not, then, take heed of it and mend our ways indeed? The Castrapithecans readily agree, laughing loudly.