What to Do with Henry

Tania James

Saffa couldn’t tell how long the chimpanzee had been hanging by its ankle from the ndokuwuli tree. There was a frailty to the thing, suspended but still. The chimpanzee had to be female, judging by the baby huddled directly beneath her, squeaking hoarsely and baring its teeth. Of baby chimpanzees, he had heard that they never left their mothers, dead or alive or hanging by a single limb.

The trap had been set by Saffa’s uncle, who owned the surrounding papaya trees and was fed up with marauding monkeys. He had sent Saffa to check the traps that morning, and at the time, Saffa was pleased to be dispatched on what he considered a man’s errand. He was seventeen, and when his father’s friends came by the house, they still sent him to the kiosk to bring them back cold drinks, as though he were a boy. If only he were on his bicycle right now, rather than here, a rack of bottled beers clinking in his wire basket.

Saffa glanced at the long, curled toes. According to the paramount chief, he wasn’t supposed to set eyes on a dead chimpanzee, let alone kill it; the chimpanzee was a sacred animal like the leopard and the bush cow, off-limits to hunters and farmers. But now what? He might have turned away and headed home and made himself forget everything were it not for the baby.

Saffa gathered the baby into his large, awkward hands, its terror reverberating through his palms. Its head was smaller than a mango, and its eyes were liquid and searching. He felt sorry for the orphaned thing, but ah! — a flash of hope. He knew exactly what to do with it.

 

He took the baby chimp to Nguebu Market. Sometimes Peace Corps people drifted through the market, their gazes casting about for souvenirs; they were known to pay high prices for baby chimps, which they liked to keep as pets. The Peace Corps people were built of a mystifying courage that made them unafraid of the animals those babies would become one day, wild and possessed of the strength of five men.

Saffa set up a stool beside the other vendors that lined Mahei Boima Road, which was so choked with commerce that hardly a bicycle could pass. People forged their way through on foot: a woman with a plate of pineapple on her head, a boy with a tower of twelve plastic buckets balanced on his own. Saffa put the baby in a cardboard box and waited. He tried to appear cool against the questioning eyes of the vendors, tried to ignore the mewling sound that the baby had begun to make. He fixed a careless gaze on the rice seller across from him, whose own baby straddled her back within a red wrap, perhaps the same placid position in which the baby chimp had been before its mother took one wrong step and flew into the sky.

 

A half hour later, a pair of tourists made their way down the road, a white woman behind sunglasses and a golden little girl in a frothy western dress, with the dark braids of a local. The little girl held the white woman’s hand and trailed behind. He watched their twined fingers, the dark and light of them.

The white woman stopped before the cardboard box. In her, Saffa saw the yawning unhappiness of rich people, a kind of boredom with life that had brought her here, along with so many other tourists, to give color to her life. But Saffa did not fawn and pander like the handicraft people when they dealt with tourists. He remained on the stool, pinching the calluses at the base of his fingers.

When the white woman peered into the box, the baby chimp raised its hands to her. Saffa said, “He want you to carry him.”

The woman glanced at Saffa, obviously surprised that he knew English. She had no idea that he had been the smartest of his form-five class, that he had taught himself English from movies. He spoke a few words of Krio to the little girl, which made her smile. Somewhat relaxed, the woman picked up the baby chimp, and it sat quietly in the crook of her arm.

He could see how human the chimp looked to the white woman. The color of its face was nearly as pink as her own, though most likely its skin would later darken like its mother’s. Saffa did not mention the mother. He said that he had found the baby in a forest, abandoned.

Not only did Saffa know English words; he also knew English numbers, and refused to go below thirty-five dollars for the chimp. After paying Saffa, the white woman removed the shawl from her shoulders and wrapped the baby inside it, oblivious to those who stared at her. She took the little girl by the hand, and together they made their way through the crowd. Saffa watched this strange little trio, amused but proud, already imagining and embellishing the story he would tell his brothers. From now on, they’d jump at the chance to check the traps.

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