‘Shipwreck’, by Elspeth Muir


Photo by Horizon2035. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Lifted Brow have an enviable archive of pieces from incredible writers, some of whom have gone on to publish books. One such book is Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane by Brow alumna Elspeth Muir. Here we revisit a short story of Elspeth’s originally published in the Brow and later anthologised in The Best of the Lifted Brow: Volume One.

The chimpanzee shrieks and the sound is extraordinary. Red, green and blue birds chirp, shit then resettle. They ruffle their feathers.

Thomas, shipwrecked on the island, curses. He brings an imaginary cigarette to his lips and adjusts his panama. “Don’t worry old girl,” he blusters “It’s that accursed ape. Nothing to fret your pretty head over. Daddy’s king of the jungle. I’ll find you your treasure, won’t I darling?”

He wonders if Edith hears him. It is unlikely – she rarely listens. He has seen her only twice, after sitting still for more than three days and eating very little. He thinks she might come from the sea, although he has not yet inquired. In her absence Thomas concocts extravagant promises, hoping that next time she’ll stay.

Night falls and the lagoon is phosphorescent. The water slaps and moans. Big fish feed where the reef drops off.

The chimpanzee looks for food all day. It eats eggs and shellfish and berries and coconuts and dead birds. One time a whale washed ashore. The chimpanzee scooped out the eye and put it in its mouth. It spat it out.

The whale was alive when it ran aground. It burned to death in the sun. The gorgeous, oily, blubbery insulation cooked its primeval heart until, fat with heat, the concave walls began to fray and leach tendrils of unctuous red slick.

Its bones are on the north side of the island. The chimpanzee sometimes swings on its ribs.

Thomas eats the same food as the chimpanzee. He forages in the small forest on the island. Food is scarce and Thomas is neither agile nor strong. He finds it hard to reach all but the closest birds nests. He cannot climb for coconuts. He cannot fish. He is wary of the navy blue berries that grow on the small thorny bush.

He is scared of the chimpanzee. It throws sticks at him from the trees. He throws small pebbles back.

Thomas snacks on sweet ants with molasses-filled abdomens. Sometimes he pries shellfish from the rocks, gently tearing the tops of his fingernails from their beds. During the day he sucks pebbles to stave off thirst.

There is a single fresh water spring on the island. It is in the forest. He goes there after dark when the chimpanzee is asleep.

Thomas sleeps on the north side of the island, under a pandanus palm, in a shallow hollow. The hollow is carved into soft volcanic rock and is lined with sand. On clear nights Thomas counts satellites and chews a smooth, grey stick. He groans with the loneliness of it all.

The chimpanzee is wary of the waves that smash into the rocks at high tide and doesn’t come close.

In the cooler months the birds leave the island, and there are no more eggs. There are fewer coconuts and the chimpanzee is twice as vicious. Sometimes Thomas stays in his hollow all day leaving only for water.

Edith comes then. Her purple dress is spattered with light and shadow – and is made and she flits through the forest singing.

She flirts and pouts and spins fast on the spot so that Thomas can see she is wearing nothing under her skirt. They play canasta until dusk. She cheats.

Edith eats the navy blue berries from the spiky bush. When she laughs her teeth are stained with juice. She has cruel teeth, small and pointed. She sits in a pandanus palm above Thomas’s hollow and teases him, proffering her slim, brown calf, then pulling it out of reach when he stretches up to touch it.

Sometimes Thomas lies in his hollow and pretends to smoke cigarettes. Edith likes cigarettes. He thinks that maybe she will come over to investigate and then he will grab her ankle.

Only once she comes to watch, wrapped in a salt-stiff feather boa, dangling a broken accordion by its fraying strap. He smokes. She stares. She crouches on the sand at the end of the hollow shuffling cards. He asks her if she’d like to play and she giggles, teeth cutting the air.

On nights when Edith is around the wind is chill and Thomas shivers under a thin layer of pandanus leaves. From the forest he hears the broken box accordion, moaning an off tune, long and low. Satellites spin through stars and the chimpanzee shrieks in its sleep.

Beyond the island with its fledgling pubescent smattering of trees and barely there eco-system Thomas cannot recall. He has the vaguest notion that he has been here forever.

(And that pinprick before, the waves tip tapping on the metal hull, the smell of singed chimpanzee and the sea and the sea and the sea – gulping like Thor from the drinking horn.)

The chimpanzee remembers the wreck when it is asleep. It hoots with fear.

Thomas grows impatient with Edith’s coquettishness. When she comes to stare he lunges for her – growling. She giggles and skips back. He tries to get up from the hollow to chase her but falls back and hits his head. She laughs and runs off.

Thomas calls for Edith and hears the broken box accordion gasp once or twice for breath beyond the forest and the sand. He calls again, but Edith is all foam and wicked laugh. She won’t come back.

He rages and the rage makes his heart flutter and his lungs impotent. He stops moving. His lips blister and seep. Flies settle on the broken skin.

The chimpanzee, accustomed to Thomas’s shrill monologues, wonders at the sound of wind. It drops the handful of sticks it is carrying and climbs down from a tree. For a time it forages in the small forest alone. It moves in concentric circles, tight at first, then looser and larger.

Full of food the chimpanzee swells with a different hunger. It sits under a pandanus palm, and sighs, thinking about other chimpanzees.

It tears leaves off the cabbage palm. It throws rocks at the big fish slapping on the outer reef and grunts. It wanders past the whalebones and over the large white grains of sand rimming the lagoon. It rubs the back of its neck over and over.

On one foraging trip it finds itself closer than it has ever been to the rocks that face the open ocean. It hears Thomas’s wheezing and is curious. It moves slowly towards the sound.

Thomas is curled up in the hollow. His gums are the colour of coagulating ketchup and he sings songs he hasn’t made up but can’t remember learning. “Prah maree keep on burning, rollin, rollin, rollin bah the river.”

The chimpanzee crouches near the hollow watching. The tide is getting higher but the chimpanzee doesn’t notice. It watches Thomas breathe in and out. His eyes are fixed and unseeing with a dull sheen.

The chimpanzee is fascinated by Thomas’s body. It is familiar yet entirely strange. It touches the broiled flesh on Thomas’s face. It snags a hand in his salt-stiff hair. It lifts his arm and examines his fingers. It peels his lips open and smells damp, rotting breath.

It sits and crosses its legs. It pulls Thomas’s body towards it and cradles his head in its lap. It has been carrying a coconut which it breaks open. It pours sweet, cloudy milk into Thomas’s hot, cracked mouth.

Thomas splutters and moans. The primate jams a jagged finger of white coconut meat between his teeth. He spits it out and the primate jams it in again. He chews and retches and swallows small bites and retches. The primate crams more in, and Thomas chews it slowly. Listlessly. Then, he dozes fitfully, knotting the chimpanzee’s leg hair with unconscious contortions.

Sun sets. The air is hot and thick with the smell of tamarind. On the horizon is a storm cell. Coconuts thud. There is a breeze from the lagoon. At the water’s edge sand sizzles, pulled in and pushed out by small, uncrested waves.

The chimpanzee sleeps with one black hand in Thomas’s matted hair.

In the morning it leaves only to gather coconuts, ants and birds eggs. It returns to the hollow and resumes its position, moving only to force coconut milk or egg yolk into his mouth, and to peel pieces of flaking skin from his face.

Thomas wakes to the white glare of the morning sun. He wakes choking on coconut milk. He retches from the smell of hot chimpanzee. He sees that the sun is setting. He also sees a full moon.

He wakes burning. He wakes freezing. He wakes crying. He wakes laughing. He wakes screaming. And he sleeps.

The chimpanzee watches Thomas. When his eyes are open it feeds him. When his eyes are shut it holds him. It feels his fever ebb and his skin turn cool. It feels his contortions still. It touches its waxy hands to his flaking face. It arches its back and sees the red, green and blue birds flying in fast circles above the forest. It walks into the trees.

The chimpanzee returns at dusk. Thomas is sitting up, his back propped against the pandanus palm. He is weak and hungry. Pinpricks of light skid across his pupils. His memory is black. When he sees the primate at the edge of the forest he moans with fear.

The chimpanzee lopes toward Thomas on all fours. Thomas scrabbles for small rocks. When it is close Thomas pelts it with pebbles. It does not stop.

Thomas yells. The sound is sickly and fades quickly. “Piss off. Piss off you brute. Leave me alone.”

Fear makes Thomas’s eyes tear and his bladder tingle. He shifts from cheek to cheek and curses his still impotent legs.

The chimpanzee is close. Thomas can feel the heat from its body and smell its hair and hear it breathing. He looks into its eyes and throws one more rock. The primate flinches. It raises a curled fist. Thomas groans and turns his head to the side. He shuts his eyes and waits for the blow.

There is no blow. Thomas waits. He turns. He opens his eyes.

The chimpanzee’s fist is uncurled. On its palm are two small blue eggs. Thomas looks as it moves its hand towards him.

Thomas takes an egg. He cracks a small hole in the shell with a rock and sucks out the slightly bloody yolk. He looks at the primate. It holds up the other egg. Thomas picks it off his palm. “Thank you,” he says.

The chimpanzee sits back and watches Thomas eat. It scratches its leg. It purses its lips and grunts. Thomas starts. It walks towards him. Thomas tries to stand. His legs give way. He pulls them into his torso and puts his head on his knees.

The chimpanzee takes Thomas’s head in its hands and runs its fingers through his hair. It is not an unpleasant sensation. His body becomes less rigid. His scalp is gently tugged as the primate forages for lice. The chimpanzee puts the lice in its mouth.

At night the wind is strong. Thomas sleeps against the rock. He is restless. The ground is hard and small pieces of gravel stick to his skin. It is achingly cold. The chimpanzee lies near him. He leans over and puts his hand in its hair. The hair is coarse and thick and warm.

Thomas rolls closer. He sniffs deeply. The animal smell is sharp and he huffs. He can feel the chimpanzee’s heat. He touches his stomach to its back. He puts his arm over its side so that his hand is on its chest. He feels its thumb touch his. His eyes close.

The chimpanzee and Thomas sleep together the next night. Thomas moves his hand from its chest to its stomach. The night after he runs both his palms up its endless arms. Each night he is less inhibited. He grasps and squeezes a hairy buttock. He rubs his cheek in its neck. He presses the wrinkled skin on its forehead. He cups its foot in his hand. He runs his toes the length of its body.

Its smell becomes familiar and addictive. Its misshapen body repulses and excites him. He looks forward to sunset when the constant foraging and eating ends and he can once again indulge his ravenous fascination with the primate. He kneads its fur and pinches its skin. He grinds his crotch into its back. He licks its nipples and tickles it under the arms.

The chimpanzee is excited and confused by the nightly attentions. It struggles and screeches in pain. It kisses its tormentor. It wraps its arms around his back and thrusts against him with its pelvis. It tries futilely to escape, then slackens. It whoops it and murmurs. It stares into the dark trees with one hand on Thomas’s side.

During the day it forages close to Thomas. It picks the lice from his hair. It brings him eggs and fruit and ants to eat. It purses its lips and hugs him. It grows agitated when he is out of sight.

Thomas starts to rely on the chimpanzee. He looks forward to being groomed. He receives the food with pleasure. His lust for his companion is augmented by a fondness that leaves him hollow on the rare occasions when the chimpanzee is not there.

Thomas forgets Edith. He forgets the shipwreck. He does not wonder about the frayed material that cuffs the chimpanzee’s wrists. He does not wonder about the thick scar on his cheek. He think only about searching for food, about swinging on whalebones and the lovely nocturnal fumblings. He is happy.

He and the chimpanzee go for long foraging trips around the island. Thomas pries shellfish from the rocks and the chimpanzee collects bird eggs that Thomas cannot reach. On one trip Thomas finds a stick. He gives it to the primate who uses it to fish for ants.

Thomas grooms the chimpanzee. He learns which parts of its body grow tender after climbing and rubs them to ease the tension. He tickles it and it screams with delight. He is intrigued by the way it walks. He wants to know what it thinks.

Thomas begins to teach it a basic sign language. The chimpanzee is a bright but distracted pupil. It learns to sign ‘Love’, ‘Thomas’, ‘Food’, ‘Go’, ‘Me’ and ‘Now’. Thomas is proud of his student.

After dark he usually makes a fire. This impresses the chimpanzee who hoots with delight as Thomas rubs sticks together with frenzy, blowing in short sharp puffs until the grass catches fire.

He and the chimpanzee sit beside the fire and watch the small flames lick the night. The chimpanzee won’t go too close, but it adores steaming shellfish and hard boiled eggs and jumps on the spot while Thomas cooks.

Thomas is proud of the chimpanzee’s reaction to his skills. He feels slightly superior to his lovely, hairy companion. Though he likes their night-time contortions, he sometimes thinks he deserves a more erudite companion.

By the fire Thomas begins to talk about the origin of the island. He gestures with open arms at the lagoon, the small forest and the whale bones. “All this,” he tells the chimpanzee “including you – belongs to me,” he says. The chimpanzee signs “Love Thomas” and looks up at him with adoration. Thomas tickles its armpits and it squeals.

Thomas describes to the chimpanzee how Edith came from the ocean and made him king. He talks about the fire making skills, bestowed upon him by a heavenly entity. He asks the chimpanzee what it thinks about bowing to him. He waits for a hoot of assent – none comes. He looks over to see the chimpanzee asleep by the fire. This annoys him slightly.

Thomas starts to forage halfheartedly. He feels the work is tedious and beneath him. One morning he stops. He sits in his hollow weaving a regal hat from pandanus palms. The chimpanzee now forages for two. In the evening it is tired. It does not jump by the fire or hoot with joy like it used to.

Thomas asks the chimpanzee about the future. He tells the chimpanzee he would like to build a hut. He is uncomfortable in the hollow and does not find it kingly. He asks the chimpanzee if it could collect cabbage leaves and pandanus palms when it forages next. “Love Thomas,” it replies. “Food Now.”

Thomas is angered by the chimpanzee’s response. He thinks it does not take him seriously. He tells it that he wishes it wouldn’t say such stupid things sometimes. He tells it that it has hurt his feelings. The chimpanzee sees that he is anxious and hoots. It begins to pick lice from his hair and slowly Thomas calms down.

The next evening the chimpanzee returns with only blue berries. The weather is growing cool again and the birds have stopped breeding or have left the island. A storm has destroyed the coconut trees. There is nothing else to eat. Thomas is enraged and kicks the chimpanzee. It shrieks and runs off into the forest. Many hours later it returns and Thomas says sorry.

One night Thomas asks the chimpanzee if it loves him. “Love Thomas,” it replies. “Food Now Thomas.” The chimpanzee is tired. Its head droops. It signs “Food Go Thomas – Me Go Now.” It curls up next to the rock to sleep.

Thomas is infuriated by the chimpanzee’s callousness. On purpose he sleeps with his back to it. He wonders if it even notices.

Thomas is angry. He wonders why the chimpanzee is afraid to reveal the true depths of its feelings. He tells it that he’s sick of the meaningless conversations they have about trivial matters.

The primate has humiliated him. He has laid his emotions bare and the chimpanzee won’t give him anything. “You don’t love me,” he yells. “You don’t love anything.”

The chimpanzee is agitated by the anguished display. It begins to sign quickly. “Love Food Now Thomas Love Food Now Thomas Love Food Now Thomas Love Food Now Thomas.”

Thomas is furious. He rushes at the primate and grabs it by the shoulders. He pushes it back toward the fire. It is close. It fur smokes and crackles. The smell of singed flesh makes him flinch. The chimpanzee screams and struggles to break away. Thomas slackens his grip. It runs into the trees.

For the first night since his illness Thomas sleeps alone.

Days pass and the chimpanzee does not return. Thomas works on his hat and draws up plans for an enormous castle in the sand. The hat is destroyed in a storm and the plans are washed away in a king tide.

He wanders the island with a stick beating small bushes and throwing rocks at the birds. He tears at his tattered clothes and gives orders to the sand crabs. He chews his thumbs until they bleed. He shoots into the trees with an imaginary pistol and cusses at the chimpanzee until his voice breaks and he is left with no sound.

His gaze grows blank. He spends hours sitting in the shade of the pandanus palm staring into the distance.

It rains and rains. Thomas’s clothes grow mildew. The skin around his genitals peels off.

Once he thinks he sees the chimpanzee loping through the forest. He chases after it swearing and beating his chest, but it is gone before he reaches the trees.

The rain stops and Thomas’s raw genitals begin to smell and attract small flies. The pain makes him sob with fury. His only relief comes from bathing in the forest spring. He goes daily, sometimes calling for the chimpanzee, but it never comes.

The absence of the chimpanzee compounds his pain. He is tormented by the cheek of his invisible subject and resolves to lay in wait for it. He spends every day at the spring, leaving only to relieve himself, to search for coconuts and to sleep.

The chimpanzee is a canny opponent, but Thomas knows it can’t live forever without water. On the seventh day he smells it. Hair and lust and death. He waits in excited pain for its arrival.

It crawls slowly, moaning. The smell is insidious and it makes Thomas gag. When he sees it, it is crawling. Its back is a festering crater of crusted hair and glistening black and red flesh. In places its skin is held firm by a mattress of writhing maggots.

Thomas edges back quickly, gagging. Startled, the chimpanzee looks up. Its face is haggard and its eyes are cloudy. It flinches and rocks back onto its haunches staring at Thomas.

Thomas scuttles back on his elbows, retching at the stink. The chimpanzee begins to whimper. “Love Thomas,” it signs. “Love Thomas,” again and again, its dying fingers tripping over the words.

Thomas stands up and walks through the trees. He shakes his clothes with one hand and clutches his nose with the other. The primate shrieks and the sound is extraordinary. Red, green and blue birds chirp, shit and resettle. They ruffle their feathers.

Elspeth Muir is a Brisbane author whose writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Best of the Lifted Brow: Volume One, Griffith Review, Voiceworks and Bumf. She is a postgraduate student at the University of Queensland.