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terms of modest diffidence

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Intellect is nothing to savor. 

Monkeys know. 

Monkeys see. 

Monkeys do.


monkeys | matthew rohrer


“That’s impossible,” Lieutenant Little says harshly, laying marmalade over every square inch available on the bare half of his biscuit. 


“Sir?” Hodgson replies, sounding quite surprised, and Irving’s cup hovers just below his mouth, pluming steam into his sleepy face. Little frowns down at his knife as it scrapes in neat rows and then rounds off an edge with a flick of his wrist.  


“I believe you heard me,” Little goes on, setting the knife down on the edge of his plate with a decided clack and wiping a bit of the stick on the napkin thrown over his knee. 


There’s a precarious moment where Hodgson, mouth open halfway, seems to contemplate what he intends to say next before he glances at Irving who has fully occupied himself in his coffee. 


The mates have already left, eating quickly and adjourning for the days opening tasks, and with the Captain improving Erebus at first light per Sir John's request, it’s only the three lieutenants remaining in the wardroom.


“There is no such thing,” Little goes on, picking up both halves of the biscuit - one butter, one marmalade - and mortaring them together with a scowl. “As an orangutan .” 


As he sneers the words he begins to take a bite and then abruptly loses the appetite for it in favor of glaring pointedly at Hodgson. “Or do you take me for a complete fool?”


Hodgson’s jaw snaps shut and he blinks in astonishment at the utter contempt he’s just been dealt while Little busies himself with chewing.

“A fool? Sir - Edward ,” he huffs, sprinkling in a little laugh to dauntlessly cover the awkwardness, his imploring tone clinging on to Little’s given name for dear life. “You know I do not think that in the slightest! I was merely recollecting!”


Irving, subdued in half-aware silence, is quite bright eyed when his gaze bounces between them. 


“You mean for me to believe ,” Little says unequivocally, rubbing the tips of his fingers with the napkin. As it is breakfast, and a more casual affair, he dares to set his arm upon the table, rapping his knuckles on the top so that his teaspoon rocks. “That there is an ape that is entirely orange with a face as flat and wide as this plate in front of me, and you saw it while you were hacking through pirates off the coast of Java.” 


“Well,” Hodgson says, tilting his chin up a bit haughtily. “Yes, sir, I believe I do mean for you to believe that. Because it is absolutely true. I saw it. And we were off of Borneo, the greater island, not Java.”


Little makes a brusque sound, like a scoff, and shakes his head, smoothing one hand over the side of his freshly combed hair. 


“John,” he says next, eyeing Irving who stiffens under the harsh scrutiny. “Please, enlighten me. Why would God, the architect of heaven and earth Himself, create a creature,” he swings his gaze to Hodgson once more. “That is twice the size of a man and four times as strong, but is bright orange in the middle of the green jungle . It’s heretical. Any hunter could pick off the damn thing from a mile off.” 


“Well,” John begins, as mildly as he may, sitting straighter with a creak of his chair. His voice is sticking from not being used at all so far this morning and he clears his throat a bit. Edward and George eye him with great intensity and he longs to loosen his collar.


 “The Lord is -,” he darts his eyes to Edward. “Quite... mysterious in his designs - one might ask any number of questions about any number of creatures -,”


“There you have it,” Hodgson piques, nodding once in affirmation. “Very well said, John!” 


Little is incensed

“What next then? Unicorns?” he gulls, voice straining a bit breathlessly and Irving’s eyebrows shoot up while Hodgson’s fall. “Those are in the good book too, are they not?”


Apocryphally - ,” John stresses, perplexed himself.


“The word orange is in the damn name!” Little says loudly. “ Orangutan. Certainly that is evidence enough of this joke.”


“I’ll have you know, Edward, that I would not joke about Borneo, and, further,” George interrupts, folding his arms across his chest in an uncommonly defensive gesture despite leaning forward to match eyes with Little who rears back and looks down his nose. “That Gibson has also seen the orangutan! Haven’t you Gibson?”


The Lieutenants all crane around to look to where Billy is standing in his corner, stricken by the sudden and direct address. 

“Pardon me, gentlemen, I believe I’ve left the tongs!” 


There is a brief trundle of Jopson skirting out of the wardroom in a flash of blue and buttons and stripes, leaving Billy abandoned to the wolves.

With Little growing out his whiskers while they press further north it lends an uncanny appearance to some beast, and with his eyes narrowed so Billy must tamp down the urge to also flee. 


“Well,” Little spits expectantly and Gibson swallows. 

“I...have sir. Seen it.”


“There! Do you see?” Hodgson lifts his hand and taps it victoriously upon the table, picking up his own neglected cup. “A witness,” he says, taking a drink of the now chill coffee. “Certainly that is enough to put the issue to rest.”


Prove it.”


“Begging your pardon, sir,” Billy says weakly. Little’s wounding gaze goes from Gibson to George who has once again replaced his cup upon its saucer. 


“Prove it,” Little says again. “If you’ve seen it, prove it.” 


“However do you wish for me to prove that beyond producing an orangutan here and now, since you refuse to take me and Gibson at our word?!” George boggles.


“I’ve not seen this beast rendered in any book of any academic degree nor even the lamest and most tawdry of news pages,” Little grits, suddenly reaching and taking the agenda of the days preliminary notes from beside his fork. He holds it up to the two other Lieutenants and then slaps it over so that the clean side of the page is facing upwards in the center of the table. 


George stares at the page, and Edward seethes at Gibson, who has betrayed him most personally. 


“You mean for me to -,”


“Fetch a pen,” Little barks before George can clamber for anything more to say. Gibson goes ramrod straight and then darts from the wardroom, the door rattling shut behind him and sweat breaking on his brow.


Gibson .” 


Billy stops short, turning to look into the pantry where Jopson is hidden, his eyes huge and his face bright red. Billy frowns, straightening his coat with a jerk. 


“Found your tongs?” he hisses. 


“I’m sorry, please,” Jopson says quickly, reaching out to stay him, and Billy looks over his shoulder before he ducks into the pantry. “I apologize,” he goes on, a tremulous quake to his voice. He’s taken his gloves off and unbuttoned his jacket and his hair is askew. He looks nearly feverish. “I only -,”


“Lieutenant Little insists on having Hodgson draw the animal on the back of the headlines and wishes for me to fetch a pen,” Billy says blandly, all at once, and it’s at those words that Thomas Jopson does the absolutely unthinkable: he properly falls out. 


Keeping silent save for a wheeze, he leans his arms upon the chest of drawers in front of him and buries his face into them so that no one can hear him sobbing with laughter. Watching his back fall and rise rapidly with the impact of it, of the utter absurdity , Billy cannot help but feel a giggle bubbling up the back of his throat. 


They are privy to all matters and manners of conversation - most of them so rote they degrade even the air, and others still more dull that Billy has to clench his jaw to keep from yawning, but every so often the self ascribed demigods in their charge reveal facets that are so wholly unexpected and so ridiculously human that it forces them to be only human in return.  


He rolls his eyes to the ceiling to try to quell it but soon he is unable to stop the contagious shaking of his shoulders and can only touch his glove to his eyes in the hopes that he won’t embarrass himself any further. 


“Oh Christ ,” Jopson keens, still hiding his face. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep straight -,”

“I thought we were about to be attending Hodgson’s funeral,” Billy confesses over the sound of argument on the other side of the wall. The two of them laugh harder, Billy having to gnaw on his knuckles to keep from making too much noise. 


“The bit on the name, ‘bout orange being in it,” Jopson squeaks, barely lifting his head. “ Or-ange-u-tang.”


They both bow away from one another, shuddering silent laughter into their hands, or whatever soft and muffled spots they can find. At one point Billy considers burying his face in the table linen to mop the little tears at the corner of his eyes.


Perhaps it’s because this is all happening first thing in the morning. Perhaps it is because, until now, things have been so ship-shape as it were, all of them dancing around like fine clockwork, and this is the first little hitch in the line; perhaps it’s because Little, who is so dour and stoic, has woken up in such a foul mood and still managed to eat two biscuits and the last of his back bacon despite it ; perhaps it’s because Hodgson decided appropriate subject for breakfast conversation was the - admittedly - bizarre animal, which Billy knows he’s only glanced (and even then it was very much dead as a doorknob and very poorly taxidermied) in a market stall of Jakarta. Which is Java. 


In the end it’s probably the fact that their executive officer suffers no nonsense, which is all that is being served to him, and he is suffering a great deal. 


“Who knew the Lieutenant excelled so much in elocution,” Billy quips as he recovers, tugging at his own glove primly and Jopson bites off a howl, turning his head entirely away from Billy and hacking a crying sort of laugh into the crook of his own elbow. 


“Gibson!” Hodgson keens. “ Where is that pen, man!”


“God help us,” Billy says lowly, tossing the top of his curls in the reflection from a pewter tray on the shelf. “Four more years of this. Even good John Bridgens would crack.”


Jopson squats down in the corner of the pantry and hugs his aching sides for a moments, shaking his head back and forth and breathing in little gasps.


“Go,” he rasps, still tittering, reaching out to blindly swat Billy’s leg so that he is forced to duck out and go staggering off for a pen. As he comes back he schools his features and clears his throat before reentering, as professional as he can.


He presents the pen and Hodgson takes it, turning it thoughtfully in his hand before bending over the sheet. The plates and cups, Gibson notes, have been moved aside and all three lieutenants are now hovering over the table, Little on his feet and fuming down on them, trying to see around Hodgson’s scribbling with one hand on his waist, pushing back his jacket. 


“I cannot work under this condition. You’re disturbing my memory,” Hodgson says thinly and Little snorts, making like he is turning away for a moment but eyeing it slyly just the same. Irving has an air of great anticipation.  It may be the (mediocre) artist in him. 


“There,” Hodgson proclaims, signing the drawing with a flourish and settling back. Little snatches the paper up, looking at the drawing. "The orangutan."


From his own height Billy can spy it over Hodgson’s shoulder - a squat hairy body with long gangling arms and a huge dark cross-hatched face. It’s frowning meanly in a supremely exacting countenance that can only be purposeful. It makes Little instinctively crumple the edges into his fist on the first look out of pure rage.


It’s what Billy would refer to, were he not subjugated to the torture of making no sound whatsoever, as an absolute scream.