“Gorillas are Gentle” by Jessica Anthony

Image by Sara Wong / saraarielwong.com

I am found ONE BURNING AFTERNOON, deep in the sand of the NUBIAN DESERT, in the uplands heading towards the RED SEA. Dr. Leonard Benjamin and his students are just about to pack it in when one of them, a FAT PUBESCENT named BRIDGET, who has done nothing but LEAN ON A SHOVEL ALL DAY AND COMPLAIN OF DYSPEPSIA, brushes an inch of sand with her shoe and discovers a bone.

“Dr. B, I found an arm!” she shouts, but it isn’t an arm, it’s a FIBULA, and it’s completely intact.  

Dr. Benjamin holds up the fibula. “That’s a FIBULA,” he says.

“The arm,” says Bridget. “That’s what I said.”

“The fibula is part of the LEG,” says Dr. Benjamin.  

(He has this WAY OF SPEAKING.)

In seconds, they discover my skull and lift me up, sand spilling out of my EYE-HOLES like water. Above us, the hot circle of sun. And over the course of the evening, TWO HUNDRED BROKEN BONES are lifted from the sand and carried back to Dr. Benjamin’s laboratory in TWO HUNDRED SQUARE PLASTIC BAGS.

Bridget wants to make sure she gets credit.

She says she wants to call me Bridget II.

Dr. Benjamin says nothing. He collects the bags and closes the door on his students, and when we’re alone, he pours me out onto the METAL EXAMINING TABLE and arranges me, my bones in place for the first time since I don’t know when.  


The newspapers say I’m an AUSTRALOPITHECUS GARHI, but Dr. Benjamin says that’s not right. He says I’m not a Garhi. He says I’m the missing link between the Australopithecus and the GENUS HOMO. He says there isn’t a proper scientific name for what I am yet. ANIMALIA CHORDATA MAMMALIA, he says. My number is AL-882. He calls me Ursula.

“Ursula,” he says, blowing sand from my face. “You are one VERY SPECIAL GIRL.”

Dr. Benjamin is the whitest man I’ve ever seen. His cheeks are pink, round as small buttocks.  His nose is as blue as a newborn’s. He wears a second pair of eyes he calls MY SPECKS. In them is a ghastly reflection. I can’t watch as he cleans my bones with tiny brushes or covers me in a light mist. “DRI-QUIK POLYURETHANE SPRAY,” he says, and shows me the SPRAY CAN. When he’s finished, he takes off the fake eyes and leans over me. His real eyes look like daylight.

“This is a whole new world, Ursula,” he says. “It’s going to take some getting used to.”

Six large suns hang over the examining table. They are very bright—“YOUR BASIC MEDICAL LAMPS,” says Dr. Benjamin—but they give off no heat. The old world was hot and all howls. Dripping sounds. A variety of meats-being-torn-from-their-CARCASSES sounds. All I hear now is Dr. Benjamin walking from one side of the room to the other, clicking his pen. Occasionally farting.

He’s trying to figure out how it happened. My bones are EXTRAORDINARILY INTACT, he says, for being so old. “You were just eighteen when you died, Ursula,” he says. “You lived in a high elevation that was WETCOOLANDFORESTED.”

(Death happened QUICK. The elephants RAGED. Dust flew up around me, and I choked, trying not breathe it in, but I did breathe it in. The rains came soon after, and I sank INTO MUD.)

Bridget shaves a tiny piece of bone from my skull.

She hands it to Dr. Benjamin with FINE PLASTIC TWEEZERS.  

“We found your FIBULA first,” he continues, “but many other bones followed: the skull, femur, ilium. The SCAPULA.  The SUBSCAPULARIS.”

He places the shaving under a microscope, and looks into it, beaming. “Before you came along, the best proof we had was the LAETOLI FOOTPRINTS. The trail of your ancestors, FOSSILIZED in VOLCANIC ROCK.”

“Why are you talking to it,” says Bridget.

Dr. Benjamin doesn’t answer. He applies a CALCITIC STRENGTHENING OINTMENT and CLEAR DRYING GLUE.

As he works, his fingers titillate my PARTIAL MANDIBLE.

“Forward-protruding,” he says, and grins. “PROGNATHIC with a U-SHAPED PALETTE. Your environment was extremely hospitable, Ursula,” he says. “You lived in a SAVANNA among ACACIA TREES and MYRSINE BOXWOOD SHRUBBERY. Oh, you could do all kinds of things. You could carry things, make tools. You could perform all kinds of INTRICATE MANIPULATIONS.”

The next day, Dr. Benjamin pulls something over his hands. A second skin. “LATEX GLOVES,” he says, and snaps the wrists. “Scientists have two pairs of eyes and two pairs of hands.”

He holds up a PICTURE BOOK and points to a big yellow splotch.

“We’re in AFRICA,” he says. “SUDAN, to be specific.” He turns the page. “And this is what Africa used to look like.”

I recognize the trees. The fat birds with little red heads that resemble berries. The volcano, where dank, humid air rises up from the river like gas and mud bubbles up between your PHALANGES.

“That’s where you come from,” Dr. Benjamin says, and taps the book. “You are a time traveler, Ursula. You lived in the first WORLD OF BIPEDS. You walked on two feet. Take your PELVIS, for example. Your pelvis slopes inward, toward the knee, but not too much.”

Dr. Benjamin reaches down and lightly lifts my pelvis, cradling it in his palms like a small bowl. “Ohmygod,” he says, under his breath. “Ohmygod, OHMYGOD.”

(BABY. She clung to my ankles. Rubbed her butt in the grass and made kissing sounds while she slept.)

Dr. Benjamin walks back and forth very quickly from one side of the ROOM to the other. “It could be OUT THERE,” he says, and pushes open the door.  


Dr. Benjamin says now that everyone knows about me, I’ll soon be out of THIS ROOM. I will be doing a lot more traveling. I will become famous. “Just wait until you see an AIRPLANE, Ursula,” he says, and shakes his head. “Men can fly now. We can fly all the way to OUTER SPACE. There are EIGHT PLANETS in our solar system. We thought there were nine for many years. But there are only eight.”

Suddenly, Bridget barges in. “We’ve got something, Dr. B,” she says.  

“What is it,” he says.

“A piece of hyoid bone. Very small. We’re staying out tonight. Setting up lamps.”

“GOOD,” says Dr. Benjamin without moving his face from my skull. “That could be your BABY,” he whispers, and another, smaller examining table is rolled in through the door.

Parts of her are beginning to ASSEMBLE. The piece of HYOID BONE is there, as well as four tiny pieces of her left hand. They cannot say whether it’s her FOR SURE, or even a RELATIVE.

But I just have a FEELING.  

The following week, journalists are CROWDING THE DOORWAY. They see Dr. Benjamin hunched over me and START HOOTING. One of them pushes through and runs to my table, accidentally bumping it, knocking my FEMUR to the FLOOR.  It splinters.

“Everyone OUT!” Dr. Benjamin shouts, and turns the lock. He shows me a paper. “THE NEW YORK TIMES,” he says, grinning.  

On the front page is a picture. It’s a little brown skeleton assembled on an examining table underneath six bright lights. Dr. Benjamin reads aloud the headline:


“There’s no disputing it now,” he says. “The news is out.” He laughs so hard he starts crying. “Ursula,” he says. “Do you realize what this means? You are the MOTHER OF US ALL!”

Dr. Benjamin turns away from me, his face in his hands.  A noise grows from inside of him, and he starts shaking his fist. Then his whole body shakes. “HOLYMOTHERFUCKINGSHIT,” he shouts, and then looks at me. “What do you SAY, Ursula,” he cries.  

I glance at the small table.

(BABY not finished.)

There is a PARTY tonight. There are SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE in the world, Dr. Benjamin says, and they all want to see me. Representatives from EVERY NATION have arrived. One man in particular is trying very hard to get into the laboratory, but Dr. Benjamin says NO. He says that I’m not READY YET.

“It’s the ITALIANS,” he whispers. “They’re very UP IN ARMS, as you can imagine,” he says. “You know, THE POPE.”

From the corridor, the Italians shout at Dr. Benjamin and Dr. Benjamin’s students shout at the Italians until the man sticks his foot in the door. He PUSHES himself into the lab like he OWNS IT.

Buongiorno, Dr. Benjamin,” he says.

“Minister,” Dr. Benjamin says.

The Minister is very tall and very wide—twice the size of Dr. Benjamin—and he is wearing a GIGANTIC WHITE LAB COAT. His eyes are as black as a bird’s. He strolls around the laboratory, his hands clasped at his BACK.

“We only want to have a look at the carcass,” he says. “To make sure that you indeed have what you say you have.”

Dr. Benjamin sighs. “Fine,” he says, and flattens his PALMS. “Just DON’T TOUCH anything.”

The Minister waves him away. He points to the examining table. “Is that the chimp?”

“She’s closer to a gorilla. The GORILLA GENOME is closer to HUMAN DNA than to our NEAREST evolutionary RELATIVE. We call her URSULA because the gorilla is the greatest of the apes. Sort of like the grizzly of bears,” says Dr. Benjamin.  

“So the most vicious,” says the Minister.

Dr. Benjamin tries another angle. He shows him my pelvis.

“You can really see the gorilla in the PELVIS,” he says. “And in the proportion of the MOLARS to the INCISORS, of course.”

The Minister hangs himself over me. His white coat smells like COOKED MEAT. He glances at Dr. Benjamin, then grabs my tiny skull and holds it up under the lights with TWO FINGERS.

“Oh, BE CAREFEUL!” Dr. Benjamin cries. “Ursula is very fragile! Put her down, PLEASE!”

The Minister ignores him. He inspects me very closely, breathing out through his LARGE MOUTH. His lips appear greasy. Wet as guts.

“Why, it’s not even complete,” he scoffs.

(He’s right. Parts of my skull have been artificially coagulated with CLAY and with GLUE.) The Minister looks at the other examining table. He looks at my BABY.

“But these are just bits and pieces,” he says. “Fragments of bones, nothing more.” He pokes the hyoid with a finger. “It’s a natural anomalia, I think. Irregolaritá.”

“Well, you think WRONG,” says Dr. Benjamin.

“Last year, there was a baby born in Switzerland with two mouths,” the Minister says.

“Ursula and her baby were BORN EXACTLY as they were meant to be born,” says Dr. Benjamin.

The Minister drops my skull onto the table with a KNOCK, and moves towards the door. “It’s an ape,” he says. “Scimmia, gorilla. It’s an animal—nothing more.”

When he leaves, Dr. Benjamin leans against my table and removes his SPECKS. He breathes on them, turning them into two CIRCULAR CLOUDS. He polishes them with a DRY CLOTH. “We’re ALL animals,” he says.

Everyone’s at the party but me. Dr. Benjamin’s students wanted to ROLL ME OUT for it, but after the Minister left Dr. Benjamin decided that I should stay LOCKED UP in the EXAMINING ROOM. For SAFEKEEPING. In DARKNESS.  

The six hanging suns are switched off.  

Listening to the noise of PEOPLE LAUGHING next door, I think about BABY, what she looked like before. Her brown eyes were close together. She had a large, pouty lip. Her arms were soft; sweet-smelling fur over a LIGHT OAK EPIDERMIS, Dr. Benjamin said. She liked to hold her KNEECAPS in her hands.

Suddenly, the lock on the door clicks open. Someone SLITHERS IN, and it’s not Dr. Benjamin. Dr. Benjamin is at the party. I can hear him talking down the corridor about the complexities of my SPINAL APPARATUS, my SYNAPTOPODIN. My DENDRITIC SPINE PLASTICITY.

It’s Bridget. She is carrying a SMALL MOVING LIGHT that zips over the walls like a COMET. She goes to a corner of the laboratory, removes the little plastic bags from a CABINET, and stuffs them into a DY-NO-MITE WORKOUT PURPLE GYM BAG. Then she comes to my table. She folds up my bones. She folds up BABY, too.

She puts us both into the bag, and carries us OUT.

We are in a new room with a LONG RED BED lined with red pillows. The place smells like BODIES and CIGARETTES. There are no hanging suns.

“Not going to blow it all on nice hotels,” Bridget says, and I do not presume that she is SPEAKING TO ME.

She arranges the plastic bags on the bed, then begins organizing me, one piece per bag. Then she places BABY’s pieces in bags. She writes on SMALL LABELS with a GREEN MAGIC MARKER. It takes her nearly three hours to do it. When that’s finished, she brings out a SUITCASE, and she puts us into the suitcase just as there’s knock on the door.

Bridget answers it.

It’s the Minister, still in the white lab coat. He sees the suitcase, and his black eyes FLICKER. He hands Bridget a thick BUSINESS-SIZED ENVELOPE.  

“Ten thousand,” she says.

Si,” says the Minister.

Bridget puts the envelope under one of the PILLOWS. She picks up the suitcase holding ALL OF OUR PARTS. “You’re going to be careful with them, right?”

Ovviamente,” the Minister says.

“And you’ll tell the news I found her,” says Bridget. “I was the one.”

“Of course,” he says.

“And you’ll name her Bridget II.”

I am on the SEAT OF AN AIRPLANE with TWO LOUD PROPELLERS. It is a black night, and we are flying up high. The sky is all STARS.

(BABY, we’re in OUTER SPACE.)

The Minister and another man UNBUCKLE THEIR SEATBELTS. They open each plastic bag and dump us into a pile on the FLOOR of the airplane, my bones and MY BABY’S. The other man stands up. He throws his shoulder against the door of the plane and COLD AIR rushes in. The Minister’s white coat is flapping wildly as he grabs my little skull with one hand. He edges himself to the DOOR of the PLANE and holds my skull like a TENNIS BALL. He throws it.  

The rest follows in handfuls.

As we fall, Dr. Benjamin, parts of us DISSOLVE TOGETHER. In the cold, dark, AFRICAN SKY, we are a reunion of DUST. I have no wish to be the mother of you all. Just the mother of one. And when we land somewhere in ETHIOPIA, parts of us scatter beneath WANZA LEAVES. Parts of us are wedged in the HIGH AND WIDE BRANCHES of the mature acacia. Buried beneath MYRSINE BOXWOOD SHRUBBERY.  

The rest of us sinks, with relief, INTO MUD.



Jessica Anthony is the author of The Convalescent (McSweeney’s/Grove), and Chopsticks (Penguin/Razorbill), a multimedia novel created in collaboration with designer Rodrigo Corral. Anthony’s novels have been published in 11 countries, and her short stories can be found in Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney’s, The Idaho Review and elsewhere. She has recently received fellowships from the Creative Capital Foundation for Innovative Literature, the Bogliasco Foundation, and the Maine Arts Commission. She lives in Portland, Maine.