Exclusive new fiction by Abi Hynes
I wasn’t supposed to be left unsupervised with Rosie. But her handlers had clocked off for the evening and the rest of the crew were tucked up in their trailers, so I seized my chance for some alone time.
At first, I only watched her. She’d been my body double and my muse for nearly eight months, but still I found her inexhaustibly fascinating. I sat opposite her — a weaker, paler mirror image — and watched as she toyed with a piece of melon rind, her fingernails picking at tiny pieces of its remaining flesh and bringing them to her lips. The movement of her hands was like the movement of an exquisite automaton: so unlikely. So startlingly true to life.
Monkey school, we called it; all our doubles were really apes. We treated them like celebrities. We spent our time off-camera photographing them and begging to be allowed to hug them, just this once. But none of them were quite as clever as my Rosie, who knew me and rushed to meet me in the mornings, who always got the best takes, who was first back into her crate when it was time to wrap for the day. I was smitten. I could be forgiven, surely, for this illegal visit, given just how much I loved her.
Every few seconds, Rosie’s black eyes flicked up as she checked on me. After fifteen minutes, she huffed out a breath of acknowledgement and shuffled closer.
I mimicked her. It was habit now; she moved, I moved. We rolled our shoulders up and back. Our knuckles kneaded the concrete floor to pitch our weight forwards. I’d wondered if she’d recognise me without my prosthetics, but the connection between us made my scalp fizz. Her expression was like a book written in a foreign language; I knew there was great meaning there if I only I could read it.
Earlier that day, we’d had to stop shooting for an hour because something had upset the apes. We’d watched Rosie with another chimp, a more nervous creature than my counterpart, as they shot a scene in which they had to jump down, threatening and ready for battle, from the roof of a stationary train carriage. The other actors and I were waiting to take our turn, sweating inside our furry costumes. We were just changing places when one of the camera guys leapt out at me wearing a gorilla mask, howling in my face and pounding his fists against his chest. I jumped and made him bellow with laughter, then he slapped me on the back and wandered off to find someone else to shock.
It had only been a joke, but Rosie didn’t know that. A split second after her handler had clanked shut the door of her travel cage, Rosie screamed and threw her whole weight in the direction of the masked cameraman. Her handler yelled and toppled backwards. Rosie was inconsolable with rage; she wrenched at the bars, yanking backwards and forwards so she almost tipped the crate on its side, and her screeching set off all the other apes. From what seemed like every corner of the set they screamed and hammered and bashed themselves against the bars and walls of their little prisons like they’d all gone instantly mad, and their handlers stared at each other in shock before they set off between the animals with their electric prods, jabbing mercilessly until the rebellion subsided.
What happened? they asked. What set them off? Nobody seemed to know. I kept my mouth shut, but as they wheeled Rosie away I watched her slumped, dark body get smaller and smaller with a potent mixture of love and shame. She had been trying to defend me; I was certain of it. She had been hurt because of me, and somehow I had to make it right between us.
Crouched on the floor of the trailer, I let Rosie’s solemn gaze engulf me. We were almost nose to nose. She pressed her beautiful, so-nearly-human face against the bars so that her soft lips bulged between them. I pushed my own forwards, imagining her strength in my jaw. Beneath us both, her breasts hung smooth and slack, long dark nipples dipping into the fur of her belly. We breathed together: in, and out. I could see my own rapture reflected in her pupils.
Forgetting all my training, I reached out to touch her. She took my hand in hers and I felt the warm leather of her palm, the maternal pressing of her fingertips. It felt like a blessing. Rosie’s face might have been the face of God.
But then she pulled. Her grip on my hand tightened, and she dragged my arm towards her chest, forcing my whole body up against the bars with ease. She didn’t break eye contact, but her mouth opened to emit a short shriek — in pleasure or anger, I couldn’t tell. I tried to tug my arm back from her, but the attempt was useless.
With her magnificent strength she carried my fingers up towards her mouth, and into it.
I didn’t dare move. Not with the pressure of her teeth beneath my thumb and her powerful grip around my wrist. Her eyes looked out at me, so shockingly familiar that I could almost believe she was another actor in a costume if it weren’t for those great grunting breaths. I prepared myself for pain, for the snapping of my bones, for the hot gush of blood when she bit down into my fingers. I could survive without a hand, it occurred to me. And in the awful, inevitable horror of this thought, I broke our connection at last, and closed my eyes.
In the darkness of my own skull, I felt a shift. My panic drained down and out of me, and in its place I felt the growth of something powerful and wordless. My shoulders sank in their sockets and thickened. My pelvis widened, and my breath deepened into the promise of strength, hot and sour in my nostrils, as through drawn from a furnace. In my huge mouth I could feel the fragile bones of my own puny fingers. I saw myself: not a mirror image but a pale, mocking shadow. A half thing. A thing that would not need a cage or a cattle prod to be kept quiet and safe.
In my own body, somewhere very far away, I felt Rosie’s tongue explore my fingers, tasting each in turn. The smell of my fear was as strong as the dusty scent of her, female and earthy and both of us animals as we squatted there. There was no window through which I might be heard if I called out. No sky, no air, no light. No other creature that might distract her and save me. Until, at the same moment, we both heard the footsteps on the gravel path outside the hut, the shout of the handler who had forgotten to lock the door and returned to secure it.
I opened my eyes in time to see Rosie let my hand fall, slack, to the ground. Her steady gaze was on me still, and she watched as I crawled away, my limbs vibrating with panic. She sat like that, unmoving, quietly observing me until the door banged open. And then she fled, chattering, to the back of her cage, and turned her face to the wall, and would not look at me again. She was oblivious, of course she was, to my desperate need for a better farewell. She was just an ape.
I staggered to my feet. I took the tellings-off without a word in my defence. I’m not sure I could have spoken, and the words as I’m saying them now sound strange to me, feel strange on a tongue that tastes of sour breath and the salt of my own skin.
I wish I knew. I wish she could have told me whether it was her mercy or her fear that saved me.