Number 297

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Barbed wire fence piece

I was six when they took me. My brother was four. We were shoved into trucks, cold and wet, driven for miles not knowing where we were going.

           We had been losing the battle for sometime. The days of traveling safely though our village had been something we had only heard about from our parents and theirs. We had little to fight back with and there were so many more of them than us. They had weapons, we did not; they had a hardness in their heart and a sickness in their soul that we did not. So the day came when they arrived in numbers and we could no longer hide. They torched our village, took those they could, and killed the scores who tried to escape.

           The hiding was bad, but the camps were worse. Empty acres surrounded by tall steel fences wrapped with barbed circles. When the trucks stopped we were herded out, chained, and inspected. They separated the young from the old, the males from the females. Mothers wailed as newborns were torn from their arms. It was the last time I saw my parents, their eyes sad and empty as they were dragged away. They burnt numbers into our arms. I was 297. My brother held on to my hand so hard I thought I might never have use of it again.

           Our homes, as they called them, were small and enclosed. More fences with more barbed wire. They brought us food and pretended they were our friends. Some would smile, others would sneak us treats, but none of them would come too close.  Soon our meals, our snacks, our time outside were traded for favors: To do something they told us, to behave in a way they wished, or to turn our heads as they jabbed sharp needles into our shoulders, hands, and feet.

           There weren’t too many of us allowed together at one time. Too disruptive, too noisy, too dangerous. They said. I was thankful my brother was with me. He wasn’t as strong as I was. He looked for my mother each day as if she would magically appear behind the long, thin bars. He whimpered at night and during the day. He was the first one to get sick. It started as a small cold. Then he took to vomiting each morning. I would sit by him as he curled up on the floor, holding his head, wishing for sleep to take over. Soon he could no longer eat. Even his favorite treats were of no interest to him. They gave him more food, more toys, and more needles. I saw it one day when he was snuggled in my lap; it seemed to have happened overnight. The whites of his eyes disappeared, replaced by big yellow moons that encased the tiny circles of black.

           The weather had turned cold and rainy. There was little to do outside so most of us stayed in, trying to keep ourselves busy but mostly we stared out the concrete windows, occupied with thoughts of our village back home and a life that no longer existed. My brother spent his days sleeping. Whatever little time he was awake, he fought a dull pain deep in the pit of his stomach.

           The needles they gave to all of us. Vitamins, one of them said. We didn’t fight them. To what avail—a beating, a skipped meal, no time outside. They trained us well. Then one morning, when we all were still asleep, they came for me. Chained like a prisoner, I was led into a brick building. They tied me down to a cold table. Bright lights shined in my face, blocking out the faces of the dozen men with masks looking down at me. I cried for them to let me go. My brother would be waking up. He wouldn’t know where I was. I felt a sting in my arm, and then felt tired, and then felt nothing.

           There was a screaming in my ears, a poking in my side, then pressure on my chest. My breath felt heavy. I could feel it, hear it, but I was trapped inside. Then slowly I began to focus on the eyes of my brother two inches from mine, as he sat on my chest screaming for me to wake. His screeches of delight, when he saw me wake, echoed through my head, which seemed hollow and still unconnected from the rest of my body. The others stared at me. I didn’t know why until I sat up.

           The gauze was wet and wrapped around most of my leg. As I leaned over to touch it, it stung with the fury of an angry hornet. I eased myself up and found I could not stand without holding on to my brother. They came an hour later with a small meal and a pill. They said it would make the pain go away. My brother stayed with me for the next week. Day after day, refusing to go out and play, refusing to eat unless I ate too, refusing to listen to anything they said. They unwrapped the gauze and marveled at my the new knee they gave me. The one I had worked fine, this one would be better, they said.

           Others came and went. Many of them got sick, many of them got better. A few left and never came back. My leg healed. My brother did too. Day after day his strength increased, and soon his eyes returned to the soft white they once were. The last day I saw him was a warm spring day. I could smell the blossoms of the leaves, their perfume floating though our bare barracks. There was something different about that day. They came for him while we played in the yard outside. Four of them. My brother screamed as they chained him up. When I reached out for him, they shoved me back. The same ones that came with the toys, and the treats, and the food. They pushed me hard, their eyes unkind. As they led him to the gate, he turned his head and I could see it. The small fountain growing in his eye, the tear not forming but swirling around like a raindrop in a dark sky.

           I waited for hours. Then days that turned into weeks. The small bed next to me stayed empty. I thought of him alone and scared. I ate to survive, refusing to play, refusing to take the pills they pushed in front of me, refusing to believe he would be one of them not to return. The days grew long and hot. Flies multiplied daily, sharing our food and leaving us with bites that constantly itched. They came in one day, the same ones that took my brother. Came with needles and pills, toys and treats.

           It didn’t matter any longer. There was no living here. Only existing. Existing in a made-up world they called civilization. I watched them push the long steel tip into my arm. I watched everything they did, knowing their routine almost as well as I knew mine. It seemed like a long time between my teeth sinking into his neck and the scream emanating into the sky. They hit me, beat me, but I held on, ripping pieces of skin away, gouging my fingers into his eyes. Sirens wailed and others came. A pop rang out in the air and something pieced my skin. Everything was fuzzy and in the distance of my mind I could hear more popping. I was down on the ground, the blue sky outside fading into a washed-out white. There was blood, there was screaming, and then there was nothing.

           I was chimp 297.