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DANIEL SHAND

 

 

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Daniel Shand

 

Daniel Shand is a writer based in Edinburgh, UK. His debut novel, Fallow, was published last year and was awarded the Society of Authors’ Betty Trask Prize. He recently completed a PhD at the University of Edinburgh and won the Saltire Society's 2016 Travel Bursary for Literature. 

 

 

 

 

The Ballad of Apollo

Highly Commended in the 2017 Séan Ó Faoláin Competition

 

 

 

Life had never been better for Apollo. He was in love with a pair of beautiful ladies and had gained the respect of three lieutenants, two of whom he considered to be loyal. Each morning a door opened above and a pile of rotten bananas fell into the enclosure. Nearby was a tyre swing and a bell and Apollo’s ferocity had granted him sole use of each. The bell had a long rope hanging down that you could yank, creating a raucous peal and there was little in the world that Apollo enjoyed more than yanking the rope and clanging the bell, knowing in the back of his mind that he had rotten bananas and intercourse to look forward to later.

            If there was a chimpanzee out there with a sweeter deal, then Apollo had never heard of him. Perhaps there was some ape out there who had a gorgeous partner and maybe a handful of dedicated deputies—but did he have a tyre swing? Was he able to ring his own personal bell whenever the fancy took him? Apollo didn't think so. Apollo would be very, very surprised if there existed a chimp on earth who had managed to negotiate as cushy a setup as he himself had.

            That wasn’t to say this had come easy to Apollo. Within the last few years he had been the active partner in five chimp-on-chimp maulings. He had taken down Hercule, Sid, Rambo, Columbus, and Jug in increasingly frenzied displays of violence. The keepers had moved these rivals into separate enclosures as a result of Apollo’s brutality—all except Sid, who had succumbed to his wounds in the zoo infirmary. Apollo was not one of those chimps who relished violence though—he saw it as a means to an end.

 

Lucy was Apollo’s favourite for intercourse. He loved the fleshy ripeness of her buttocks, almost as much as he loved bell-clanging, and it was after a bout of passion that Lucy brought her concerns to him. They lay beside each other on the rock mound and she combed Apollo’s chest for ticks.

            —Apollo, she said. —I’ve been hearing some bad things about Stephen.

            Stephen was the least loyal of Apollo’s three lieutenants. He was young and prone to bouts of moodiness, fond of lurking on the enclosure’s edge, alone.

            —What about him? Apollo asked.

            Lucy consumed a couple of Apollo’s ticks. —I almost don’t want to mention it.

            —No, go on, sighed Apollo. —You’ve brought it up now, haven’t you?

            —You’ll get angry.

            Apollo opened his mouth in frustration. —I promise I won’t get angry.

            —Well, said Lucy, flattening Apollo’s chest hairs. —I was smashing up some planks with Frigg yesterday and she told me that Stephen had been showing off to her. He was telling Frigg that he was the cleverest chimp in the enclosure.

            —Oh, did he now? Apollo laughed.

            —That’s what Frigg said.

            Apollo shook his head. He knew that only a few short months ago this news would have driven him into a murderous rage. A few short months ago, he would probably have clawed out Stephen’s eyeballs for this disrespect, but Apollo was an older chimp now. He could see Stephen’s behaviour for what it was: the clumsy bravado of a child. Apollo knew he had nothing to fear.

            —Listen, Stephen is a cretin and everyone knows it. There’s no comparison between the two of us, and that’s that.

            Lucy tore out a handful of grass and threw it into the air, apparently calmed by Apollo’s words.

 

He had all but forgotten Lucy’s story by the time the keepers opened the enclosure’s entrance that evening. Their arrival was always a tense moment and this was no exception. Apollo’s attention went to Lucy and Frigg at once, checking the straw pile where he had left them. Then his eyes found Stephen and his two loyal lieutenants—Bonanza and Grenoir. They were rubbing faeces over the artificial stones beside their pool. Stephen was lurking by the tyre swing.

            Everyone was safe, Apollo thought. That was something.

            He made his way towards the keepers in diplomat-mode, raising an arm in salute. Rather than return Apollo’s greeting however, the male keeper brought out a stick with a noose at the end and slipped it over Apollo’s head, trapping him by the throat. The other chimps began to whoop and scream—Lucy and Frigg slapped each other’s face and Bonanza did a backflip. None of them had the mandate to act though, not while Apollo was still in charge.

            —Be calm, he shouted. —My authority remains intact.

            The female keeper moved past Apollo, past the ladies in their straw pile, and approached the two loyal lieutenants. She held Grenoir by the arm and swiftly injected a syringe into his head. Grenoir slumped to the ground and the female keeper carried him away, leaving the male keeper to release Apollo.

            The screaming and the whooping continued and Apollo did twenty or thirty laps of the enclosure, swinging sometimes on the ropes that hung down. He threw himself across the glass and hammered his forearms against it. This was a real blow. Grenoir had been the most loyal of his lieutenants and was cleverer than Bonanza, the second most loyal. Grenoir had been adept at both leaping and smashing, yet was not above the scatological. In fact, now that Apollo thought about it, Grenoir had been his birth brother. In frustration, he launched himself at Bonanza and bit him on the leg.

            For the first time in long while, life had become slightly worse for Apollo the chimp.

            That night, as the day’s dramas were fading from memory, he cosied into the straw pile with Lucy and Frigg, and said goodbye to his brother. Good luck, brave solider, he thought, may you find peace in heaven, and many females to have intercourse with, and the biggest, noisiest bell in the universe, all for yourself. He tried for sleep then, drawing the straw close, but for a long time he couldn’t help but recall the way Stephen had remained silent as Grenoir was taken, watching the proceedings with his keen brown eyes.

 

The following day Apollo set out to consolidate his remaining resources. He woke up the whole enclosure with the racket he produced on the bell. He performed an elaborate display of dominance, smearing his undercarriage on the tyre swing and maintaining eye contact with Bonanza and Stephen, the remaining deputies. Bonanza looked away, as was proper. Stephen also looked away, but in a fashion that Apollo didn’t much care for. There was something almost sardonic about the way Stephen lowered his gaze and played with his banana ration. A sneer seemed to play across his wrinkled muzzle.

—Is there something funny? Apollo called from his perch atop the swinging tyre.

—Nothing at all, Stephen shrugged.

Apollo flipped sideways from the tyre and fell near Stephen. Frigg and Lucy cawed in terror and delight.

—It’s just, you looked like something was funny.

—No way, Stephen said. —I’m just concentrating on this banana. There’s nothing funny about this situation at all.

—Good, said Apollo, and he went back up into the tyre swing and would not deign to look again upon Stephen, dismissing him now as a hopeless cynic. Who cared if Stephen was spreading stupid rumours about him? Apollo knew which chimp had the strongest fingers and the muskiest odour, and it certainly wasn’t Stephen. Stephen might have had a way with words and a certain fullness of pelt but when it came to raw power, Apollo was unmatched.

With no clear plan in mind, he resolved to forget the matter and to concentrate on making up for the removal of Grenoir. Perhaps Stephen was a lost cause but he could certainly work with what he had left—namely, with Bonanza. Several seasons ago a heavy faux log had fallen onto Bonanza, crushing his head and driving out all of its thoughts. His loyalty was unsurpassed though. Apollo suspected that if he asked Bonanza to jump from the top of the central-tree-system then Bonanza would do it, no questions asked.

This was why Apollo was appalled when, a few days later, Bonanza refused to move from the enclosure pool. Apollo had not cleansed for a while and the idea of a refreshing plunge was plaguing him. He found Bonanza lolling on his back, chin-deep in the brown water.

—Can you get out, please? Apollo said.

—No chance, said Bonanza.

—Excuse me?

Bonanza looked at Apollo with his idiot eyes. —I’m not finished yet, pops.

For a moment rage coursed through Apollo like a stick through an anthill, but if history had taught him anything it was that violence did not always inspire loyalty.

—Bonanza, I would like to wash myself. Can you please get out?

—Suck it, uncle peanut.

He thought of how Bonanza had cowered under his gaze not a day or two before. What had happened to this chimp’s attitude?

—What has got into you? Apollo asked.

—There’s a new era in the enclosure, said Bonanza.

—A new era?

—Yes, that’s right, splashed Bonanza. —Every chimp has the opportunity to make his own way in this world. None can tell the other what to do.

            Apollo rocked on his knuckles in quiet contemplation. —I see, he said. —And who told you about this new era, Bonanza?

            Bonanza looked at Apollo from the corner of his eye and slipped a little further beneath the water. —I came up with it myself.

            —You’re lying to me, aren’t you Bonanza? It’s Stephen who’s been telling you these things.

            Bonanza blew a bubble. —No. This is a personal manifesto.

            It was at that point Apollo lost the small measure of composure he had been struggling to maintain. He climbed on top of Bonanza and thrashed at his face and chest. Bonanza wailed and spluttered, struggling to keep himself free of the muddy water.

            —I’ll show you a new era, seethed Apollo.

            Bonanza didn’t say anything. He panted and displayed his teeth and gums in a last-ditch display of sycophancy that Apollo had no choice but to respect, tipping his deputy back into the pond.

            —Wow! said Bonanza.

            Apollo decided that he had had enough. It was one thing for Stephen to refer to intelligence behind Apollo’s back, it was an entirely different story for him to try and subvert the chimp hierarchies that had existed since time immemorial. That wasn’t just offensive to Apollo, it was offensive to all chimps, throughout the entire zoo.

            He strode up to the enclosure’s highest point and cast his gaze around—Bonanza was where he’d left him, weeping in the pool, but he could not spy Stephen. However, Lucy and Frigg were sunbathing together on the rock mound and Apollo rampaged towards them, pausing only as he drew close and saw them in detail. Both females had done something unspeakable to their scalps, drawing the fur up in esoteric patterns, clasping it here and there with twisted grass.

—What is the meaning of this?

—It’s the latest trend, said Lucy sleepily. —Everyone’s doing it, Apollo.

—Who is everyone? It’s only the two of you in here.

—Stephen told us about it. He’s looked into the other enclosures and this is how all chimps are doing their hair these days.

—It looks awful. I want you to take it out before I lose my temper. And where is Stephen anyway?

—Don’t be so boring, said Lucy.

—Yes, agreed Frigg. —Live a little, why don’t you?

—Did you say he’s seen into other enclosures? That isn’t possible. He’s lying to you, just to undermine me.

—Relax, said Lucy. —It’s a new era in the enclosure.

 

Sometimes, in moments of stress like this, Apollo remembered his childhood. He recalled clinging to his mother’s back and the smell of the first enclosure: real soil and water from the sky and a central-tree-system that dug right into the roots of the earth and was alive with ants and flying things.

And then keepers and their weapons, the ones that burst white flowers of explosion, followed by nothing.

He was remembering this as he approached his bell, beneath which sat Stephen.

—What on earth is that you’re wearing? Apollo asked.

Stephen had an elaborate headdress balanced atop his skull, constructed, it seemed, from broad leaves and mud. It gave him the look of a startled bird.

—Just something I knocked up in my spare time, said Stephen.

—It looks foolish. Take it off.

Stephen scowled and touched defensively at the headdress. —Typical, he said.

            —What’s typical?

            —Typical of a chimp like you to try and strangle any free expression you don’t understand.

            —I’m not trying to strangle anything, said Apollo. —I just feel embarrassed for you.

            Stephen raised his voice. —How long are we willing to put up with such oppression? How long will one chimp’s voice count for more than any other’s?

            Apollo looked over his shoulder. Frigg and Lucy and Bonanza were clustered by the straw pile, drawn by the noise of the altercation, and now Stephen appealed to them.

            —Oppression? Apollo shouted, following suit. —Was it oppression when I bravely destroyed the evil bird that entered this enclosure through the air vent? Would you call my generosity with the bananas oppressive?

            Stephen guffawed. —These are trifling matters! And at what cost? Did you feel good, brother Bonanza, when our glorious leader dunked your poor head beneath the water this very day?

            Bonanza did not answer. He was urinating onto a pile of sticks.

            Something was happening to Apollo. He was experiencing a sensation he had not experienced in quite some time; not since his battle with Jug had he felt this quivering fear in the flesh of his inner neck. Liquid was pooling in the emptiness of his mouth.

            —Enough, he said. —I’ve heard enough. Stephen, I know you’re a clever guy and I respect that, but I won’t listen to you disparage the protection I offer you all.

            As soon as he expressed that thought, Apollo knew it had been foolish. He knew this because of the way Stephen smiled.

            —Who are you to say you protect us? Stephen demanded. —Where were you when the keepers came for Grenoir? What protection was your so-called strength then?

            —The keepers are no threat to us, Apollo called to the assembled chimps. —I am in complete and utter control.

            —Oh yes? Stephen said. —Well now’s your chance to prove it.

            Stephen pointed and Apollo turned. The keepers were standing in the enclosure’s opening, carrying their noosed stick and syringe.

            Apollo closed his eyes and when he opened them again the keepers were advancing.

            Stephen jumped and clapped. —Watch, he said. —Watch and see which of you they pick off next, all while the great Apollo does nothing!

            A little shudder ran up Apollo, from his anus all the way to the top of his skull.  He knew what was required of him.

He beat the ground with his fists and flew up into the air. He bit at the female keeper’s face and she dropped the syringe. He twisted his fingers beneath the skin and removed the face completely. His muzzle and hands were slippery and he screamed and danced and wore the face as his own and said to Stephen and to Bonanza and to Lucy and to Frigg: Now do you see? Now do you witness the power I yield?

The enclosure’s chimps were erupting. In the hubbub Apollo could make out the flurry of his friends’ opened mouths snarling in maniac joy as he threw the face up into the air and it somersaulted and flew like a wet wing.

—Now do you see? Now do you see?

In the frenzy he sought out Stephen’s expression. Of all the chimps Stephen was the only one to remain calm. He watched Apollo’s display with a smirk of amusement and there was now something oddly impressive about the vast tiara he wore.

Apollo felt the rope go over his head and he was pulled from his feet by the male keeper. He jerked Apollo out into corridor that ran beside the enclosure and Apollo fought against his restraint but the rope was tight and the keeper’s hold was strong. He was marched along, howling and bellowing, flying for the walls, and he thought of his mother’s warm back and biting softly its hair. He thought of flowers of explosion.

            And then, through the glass, he heard something that made his blood run cold: the joyous clamour of a bell being rung from inside the enclosure.

 

 

©2017 Daniel Shand

 

 

Author Links

 

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Daniel Shand's Fallow at Sandstone Press

The Book's the Thing interview with Daniel Shand

 

 

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