“Maternal Instinct”

Mostly I remember fragments. Flashes. The feel of my right shoe slipping, losing my foothold, my spine arching, then a rush of concrete and green. My elbow scrapping a wall. Leaves and twigs scratching my cheek. Though I must have fallen 12 feet, I don’t remember landing, making contact with the hard concrete bed beneath the artificial stream. I don’t remember making a splash. My wrist stung where I automatically tried to break the fall, but I didn’t cry. I told myself, Boys don’t cry.

I do remember squatting in the middle of the shallow stream, the dank feel of water, slimy water, not like the bath or the beach. A rustling sound. I remember looking around, knowing that I had landed in a different world.

I’ve had counselors over the years. Some said the trauma affected my memory, others said few people remember whole scenarios from when they were five, yet even as they dismissed my partial amnesia as natural, they all, at some point, pressed me to remember. I didn’t like the way they asked, as if they were curious in a salacious way; they didn’t want to help me, they wanted the story.  A linear narrative.  I refused to see any more therapists after my last counselor, the one I had when I was fifteen, the one who wanted to try hypnosis. My parents argued about it. My father wanted me to continue; my mother felt it was up to me. If he doesn’t want to go, it won’t do any good. Besides, hypnosis is hocus pocus.  She had been opposed to therapy from the start; in fact she had argued vehemently against it, saying the fall was just an accident, there was nothing to glean from therapy. Besides, she said, I was there; I can tell you what happened.

My father felt guilty that he hadn’t been with us that day at the zoo. My mother was left alone to handle the three of us while he was moving into his colleague’s apartment (he called her colleague; my mother called her mistress or once, when she was really on edge, whore.) My older brother, Willy, at eight, was three years my senior and Ana was under a year old. My mother took us to the zoo because she couldn’t stand to watch dad carry out his possessions.  Uncle Ty and grandpa had stayed at the house to make sure dad only removed his personal belongings. When I learned this detail, I felt sorry for dad, imagining him taking hangers with shirts dangling off the rack while grandpa and Uncle Ty, glaring, stood behind him, their arms crossed like barroom bouncers.

I didn’t know any of this at the time. I don’t even remember being particularly aware that dad wasn’t at the zoo that day. My mom and dad told me the full story after a therapy session the year before I stopped going. Mom told what happened. I presume the therapist told them to tell me.  I sat in the wing chair by the fireplace; they sat together on the couch, the yellow and pink and green floral upholstered one we had back then. Chintz. The sofa we had moved with us from out east.

“Ana was fussing. Willy had run off to get a snow cone—it was so hot that day. The concrete wall surrounding the pit was about five feet high. I had had to lift you up onto the wall for you to see inside the pit. I knew it was a deep drop but there was a railing on top of the wall. I had just set you down when Ana started screeching and I leaned down to her in the stroller. It was less than a minute. I was still vaguely aware of you out of the corner of my eye—and, of course, I knew about the railing.  You must have leaned too far or stepped over it.  I guess your sneaker slipped. I didn’t see the second you went over. I was watching Ana. I heard a woman scream…” and then mom burst into tears. “I shouldn’t have looked away. I shouldn’t have…”

Dad cupped his hand over hers.

“It’s not your fault, Natalie. I should have been there.”

With his hand still over mom’s, he told me that they had been having problems, that he had foolishly thought he was in love with a colleague. He said he and mom had gotten married young. He had been selfish. But he assured me that the moment he heard what happened, he had rushed to the hospital. He didn’t tell me I was his favorite, but we all knew. I’m the one who looks like him. I have dad’s middle name. I’m the athletic bookish boy. I have dark thick hair, a furrow in my brow. Ana and Willy both look like mom, fair and freckled. They are both more musical and liked math better than reading. They both needed braces. My mother never had her teeth fixed; they still protrude. Mine are perfect and straight, like dad’s. Dad’s an attorney and I’m in my first year of law school.

They told me he didn’t return to his colleague’s apartment for almost a week, and then he went only to reclaim his belongings.

I nodded and said That’s okay. I wasn’t really hurt. Just a broken wrist and a few scratches.

It’s not okay, said dad.

I didn’t tell them what I remembered after landing in the stream.

One second, I had been with my family, among crowds of pressing sweaty people, and the next second I was squatting in the stream, my shoes and socks saturated, my bottom wet. People shouting. I looked up and saw the mother gorilla slumping toward me, her long arms swinging, her curled knuckles sweeping the ground. I was not scared. I did not sense danger.  I had seen gorillas in movies, cartoons and books.  I loved Curious George and Goodnight, Gorilla.

I remembered she moved toward me like a huge stuffed animal. A baby gorilla was riding on her back, its head looking over the mother’s shoulder. I was happy. I had fallen inside a magical world, away from the oppressive heat and crowds. I later learned that the mother gorilla’s name was Pebbles. The baby’s name was Bam Bam. They were one of the main zoo attractions because Bam Bam had been born in captivity six months earlier. Pebbles arrived beside me quickly.  Bam Bam climbed down from her back and stood beside her mother. I know the crowd above the pit roared and screamed (I have seen video footage) but at that moment the noise of the crowd was a distant din. What I heard more clearly was a who who who who sound from Bam Bam and a cross between a growl and a meow from Pebbles. Neither sounded unfriendly. Pebbles took another step toward me. The three of us formed a tight circle.  I looked up into Pebble’s golden eyes and she looked down into mine. We connected. Staring out from under deep brows, her glare was intense, yet kind, and concerned. In a flash I was in her head and she in mine. At the time, I could only feel her thoughts. Now I can piece them together, put them into words.

Another baby, another one to care for, to cuddle, another one to protect. Where is its fur? Where did it come from, not from inside of me, no pain, no breaking apart down there like last time, but it is mine. Two babies to ride my back, to nurse, two babies to love, two babies to wrestle with each other. Warm, sweet, soft. This feels familiar, long ago, another place, another time, a deeper stream, I have seen this before—where?—another baby, my sister, my brother, a family again, another baby. Only hairy like us. Running in tall savannah grasses. Birds calling.

I shivered and tried to stand. The slimy water coated my hands and shorts. I wore my favorite Star Wars t-shirt, a hand-me-down from Will. The faces above us roared. The gorilla lifted her massive arm as if to pet me and I heard a loud explosion. In a flash Pebbles became a mound of fur, her eyes no longer visible.

I don’t remember how they removed me from the pit or the ambulance ride to the hospital, though I do remember the hospital bed with the silver arms that moved up and down. I remember the deep red Jell-O they served and both my parents by my bedside. In the beginning I didn’t tell them about the connection with Pebbles because no one asked and even if they had, I did not know how to explain how I traveled into her head, how I knew the gorilla’s thoughts in her final moment, how I knew things about her life and her world that no five-year-old could. Later I didn’t think people would believe me and even if they did, to give away Pebble’s final thoughts felt like a betrayal of her last, most vulnerable moment in captivity, even worse than being christened a cartoon character’s name.

My family suffered the year following the incident. Animal rights activists blamed my mother for not keeping better track of her children.  My father was criticized for deserting a family with three small children.  They received death threats. Editorials were written. Psychiatrists on talk shows said that both observers of the event and those who read about it on talk shows needed to compose narratives, construct explanations that helped them make sense of the event—to do so was a natural human urge. Kids at school called my brother Monkey Boy and Gorilla Killa. Only being in kindergarten, I was somewhat sheltered from these things, but aware that our family had been greatly shamed because of me.  After gentle persuasion, my father left his firm, and we moved from the east coast to the west where he got a position with a smaller, less lucrative practice.

After that, I would have to say that I had a pretty normal childhood. I didn’t tell my new friends in Seattle about the incident. No one told me I couldn’t, but it seemed a tacit agreement that we should not talk about it outside the family.  Even in the family, the subject was more or less taboo. In high school, I was the captain of my school soccer team. I was a member of the rock climbing club. I had lots of friends but felt too ashamed to tell any of them about the defining moment of my childhood. In college whenever a new girlfriend and I shared our pasts I considered myself a fraud for failing to reveal the biggest event of mine: oh, yeah, and there’s that time I fell into the gorilla pit at the zoo and survived, and made headlines all over the country. Maybe you heard about it?  In my last year of college, I told my first serious girlfriend and she laughed; she thought I was joking.  I wanted to break up with her but didn’t think I could—once I convinced her of the veracity of my tale, she promised not to tell anyone but I think she would have found our pact invalid if we were no longer a couple. I ended it with her right after graduation and vowed not to tell another woman unless we planned to wed. And I doubted I would marry, given I never wanted to have children. I was like the guys who didn’t want to tell their partners that they had been arrested for drugs or joy-riding or had a bipolar parent or been a total nerd in high school. Yet my secret was bigger, bigger even than what I have told you so far.

In most ways, we are a happy family. As far as I know, my father never cheated again. He became a devoted family man who spent all his free time with his wife or his children. My father and I still go rock-climbing together. Willy, Ana and I are all good kids, unusually close siblings, even now that Willy is married. None of us ever got in trouble any more serious than talking back or being issued a parking ticket. My mother is less involved, more distant, than my father, particularly now that we are grown. But she usually takes our side in minor controversies and then dad generally caves. Guilt, I suppose.

I didn’t realize until recently how much more attractive my father is than my mother, but it is the kind of thing others—people outside the family—might have noticed. The sort of difference my father, himself, might have recognized when he found himself thirty-four years old and saddled with three small children, which was his age and situation when he tried to run off with his colleague. My father is a good man and cares greatly for my mother. I know everyone says looks shouldn’t make a difference, but if you think about it, most people in a couple are pretty much equal on the attractiveness scale. It took Willy to do the math and point out my mother must have been four months pregnant when my parents married. None of these things are serious issues. Except for my brief encounter with the gorillas, our family problems appear typical of any loving family.

I went back to the scene of the crime by myself last year, between college and law school. I had been back east before, of course, to visit my grandparents but no one ever suggested the zoo and I really had no way to get there on my own or explain my absence. (As you might imagine, we are no longer a zoo-going family.) The old outdoor gorilla pit had been replaced by a huge enclosure: twenty foot glass walls on three sides, concrete on the fourth and open on the top. A faux rock tunnel led through the concrete wall to the gorillas’ indoor quarters. I noted that most of the new jungle verisimilitude was for appearance, for the audience, not authentic enough for the gorillas. Painted jungle scenes sprawled the concrete wall. Brilliant yellow bananas. Nothing the gorillas could smell or taste. I imagined a fat tongue pressed against the dust layered paint.

I watched the gorillas for a very long time. It was a cool day, so the gorillas were active, climbing and swinging on the two tires hung from poles. Despite the pleasant weather, the place smelled of shit; I don’t recall that smell when I was five even though it had been hot that day. I imagine in the real jungle, the stench is absorbed by the earth and plants and vastness.

I have to admit, I didn’t recognize you, Bam Bam. I thought I would but I didn’t, so I waited until a zoo keeper happened along and I asked him if he knew which gorilla was which. The man wore faded gray trousers and a matching shirt with the name Tony stitched above the pocket in red. He pointed you out and told me the story of your mother’s death. I gasped and acted surprised. I asked for more details. He said I could still see the footage on YouTube. He told me the mother of the child had been investigated and cleared of negligence, a fact I had not heard previously but one that gave me a small sense of satisfaction.

“Everyone’s cameras had been pointed at the pit,” said Tony. “Not the boy’s family. It was before everyone had cells phones. Only one guy had a video cam.”

Tony said that Bam Bam had never been able to mate in captivity. I have read a lot about gorillas and knew that male Silverbacks were usually bred at 15.  Since the incident had occurred about seventeen years earlier, I had a pretty good idea of Bam Bam’s age.

“I don’t think the zoologists or the scientists would agree with me, but I think he didn’t want a family of his own after what he witnessed happen to his mother.”  The man had thick hairy eyebrows, like tarantulas clinging above his lids.

“Makes sense to me,” I said.  At that moment I wanted to tell him who I was and ask his forgiveness, explain.  I wanted to tell him that I was studying law to work on animal rights and defend activists.  He seemed like a kindred spirit. I wanted to tell him about the connection I had with your mother, Bam Bam. I wanted to tell him the secrets I had not told anyone up until now. But I felt I owed my confession to you—and you alone—even if it only meant writing it all out on this piece of paper, reading it aloud and then burning the paper. I had hoped to drop it in the stream but there was no access to it with those glass walls.

My mother need not have worried about what I would have told therapists because I would never tell a single human about what happened right before my shoe slipped. I would never tell how I remembered the pressure of the heel of my mother’s hand in the small of my back, the way the palm rolled to the finger tips, the gentle but definitive shove. I never will tell anyone besides you. I can’t claim to know why she did it. Because I looked so much like my father? Because she thought the tragedy would bring him back?  Was she so crazed at being abandoned with three small children that she didn’t know what she was doing? An unchecked impulse. Or is it possible that—like the shrinks say—I created a narrative to make sense of the event, to make myself a victim who could forgive and protect his mother?  I can’t say with absolute certainty because of all the flashes recalled from that day, my mother’s hand on my back is not the most distinct.  What remains strongest is my exchange with your mother, the love and concern she exhibited in her last moments. I can honestly say I have never felt such an immediate and powerful connection. As for my mother, if she did what I think, I need to convey to you—as well as man can to ape—that as tragic as you mother’s death was, the sacrifice was not all in vain. Your family was lost so mine could be saved.


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About Garnett Cohen

Garnett Kilberg Cohen has published three collections of short stories, most recently Swarm to Glory (Wiseblood Books). Her awards include two Notable Essay citations from Best American Essays (2011 and 2015); the Crazyhorse National Fiction Prize; the Lawrence Foundation Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review; and four awards from the Illinois Council of the Arts. Her essays and short stories have appeared in American Fiction, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, The Gettysburg Review and many other journals. A professor at Columbia College Chicago, Garnett co-edits Punctuate, A Nonfiction Magazine.