HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


Giselle Leeb's stories have appeared in Ambit, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Mslexia, Litro, Bare Fiction, and other publications. She recently placed third for short fiction in both the Elbow Room and Aurora competitions and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2016. She grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham, where she works as a web developer when she is not writing.


The forest floor behind my old house is velvet soft, the dark fingers of trees clutching each other in the wind. A thousand copies of bright yellow eyes stare at me from the branches—like that gorilla in the zoo—as if they love me, as if they would like to kill me.
I know they aren't alive. Still, I feel their breath against my face as I pass. It's just the wind, I tell myself, but I sense reproach. Are your bones more real than plastic? they seem to whisper.
I lean against a trunk, pretending not to be scared, and stare back at their eyes stirring something in me.
The wind changes to clicks and whirrs, stunted hands beating on small chests. I can't turn off a thousand switches; I must get out.
I have to find you first.

You came from the forest. OK, I opened you on Christmas day, but I knew it was the hair I'd planted. I sat impatiently and waited for my presents on Christmas morning. And mine from Mum, I knew, I hoped, was a gorilla. Most of my friends already had one, but that's not why I wanted you—I was too old by then to play with toys. I knew I could make you come alive, I knew you would be the true one.
I went into the woods at the bottom of my garden—there were no broken gorillas hanging from the branches then. I brought a stolen hair, plucked from a friend's gorilla, and I put it under a tree in a bowl of water and I prayed.
When I saw the tiny box in my Christmas stocking, I knew what it was.
The gorilla came from China.
‘Another piece of plastic shit,’ Dad said, frowning at Mum as I opened the box. ‘Fifty percent of China's emissions come from the crap we buy from them.’
True, because you were just a plastic pod then. But I wanted you. I wanted you and I wished I'd never shown Dad. I hid the packaging from him when I saw how big you might—you would—become.
‘Grow your Gorilla,’ said the instructions. Each gorilla had the potential to grow, they explained, but only one would grow into a true gorilla. I knew it would be you.
Grow. Grow. Grow.
Of course, I had the odd doubt. What if you were like one of those sea monkeys advertised on the back of comics? My friend told me they were just water fleas.
But you looked like a real gorilla, with your eyes, nose, your little teeth, and perfect ears flattened back against your head. They pressed the fingers out individually to make them more lifelike, your serial number on your thumb, to be erased and replaced by unique fingerprints if a certain height was reached.
You stood in the middle of my palm in all of your potential silverback glory and I could already see myself crying into your fur as I released you on some mountain top. I planned to let you go from the beginning, after you'd grown twice the size, three times, no twenty times at least, big, with a silver strip of fur across your back. You would be mine and then I would let you go.
I thanked Mum and sat quietly and read the instructions:

1. Turn power switch to on.
2. Please, put the gorilla in a damp place. A forest is perfect, or a windowsill with a saucer of water.
3. Please, pour on its head a little vegetable oil, a little water, depending on the type of gorilla you think it will be.
4. Water three times a day.
5. If handled good, it will grow. How much is up to you. (There is only one true gorilla, to be found by the lucky, but, more important, the right person!!)
6. If the gorilla doesn’t grow, or if stunted, buy a new one, start again. (Special discount for second-time buyers.)
7. Merry Christmas!

On Christmas night, after my parents had gone to bed, I took you out of your pod for the first time and put you on the windowsill. I over-watered you; your tiny coat was ruffled and damp. I hung you from the radiator to dry. Your eyes hadn't opened yet. But I didn't switch you on. I couldn't bear to. I was waiting for you to come alive by yourself.
Every day after school, as the winter dusk fell, I pedalled past the windows stretched along my street, two sad yellow eyes in each looking outwards, watching the rising moon and waiting for the miracle. They all came from the same factory, but only one belonged in the forest. They were already different sizes. I imagined the silver hairs starting to prick through the backs of some of them—the sign of the mature male—and I was tempted to switch you on.
After that Christmas, when the gorillas began to grow, they sold at a furious rate. Even adults were obsessed. They bought more and more until it became a frenzy: they all wanted the true one. Of course I didn't tell them that I already had you. News headlines compared the relative size of the gorillas and discussed the genetics of the silver hair. There was even speculation about secret experiments.
It lasted until the end of January. Reports confirmed that no gorilla had grown more than three times its size. The manufacturers refused interviews and the factory closed down shortly afterwards.
People were furious when they couldn't get their money back. The news ran a story about a woman travelling to the edge of a forest.
‘Get back in the trees,’ she screamed as she flung her stunted gorilla into the branches, and soon people all over the world were doing the same.
‘Jesus,’ said Dad, ‘why aren't they recycling them at least?’
I was relieved when he didn't ask about you. I took you out of my window, which faced the street, and sat you overlooking the back garden and the woods with its dark trees. You were still switched off and had not grown at all. I opened your yellow eyes myself. You looked sad and reproachful as we watched the kids at the bottom of my garden flinging their gorillas into the trees. I wondered what you were thinking. I wondered if you thought at all.
Mid-February, I took you to the woods and we peered in together. The eyes of the gorillas glowed yellow and sad. Their faces and backs were broken, their beautiful hands ripped off, wires dangling from branches. A low whirring sound, almost a grunt, mixed in with the wind blowing through the trees.
‘Don’t ever drop your gorilla,’ it said on the warning labels in large red letters, but people threw them anyway.
There were reports about strange screams and howls, batteries that wouldn't run down. Some even claimed to have seen the big one, usually teenage boys who dared each other into the forests that most people were too scared to enter.
I gave in and switched you on at the end of February
. You only grew while I slept; when I stayed awake to watch you, nothing happened. I measured you each morning: your growth was almost imperceptible—a 3mm average, maybe 5mm or so on a good night—but you were slowly getting bigger. Just as well, I thought. If you grew too fast then Mum and Dad would notice.
I still believed you were the one.
You doubled in height before you stopped. For weeks after, I measured you each morning, but you hadn't grown.
Dad came into my bedroom one evening and saw you slumped against the wall.
‘I can take it down to the recycling. I'm going on Sunday,’ he said.
I didn't reply.
I'd planned to hide you in the woods until Dad's recycling trip was over. I was going to build you a little shelter, keep watering you each day.
When you left, you were still only twice your original size. You weren't big enough to be without me. I came home from school and you were gone. I asked Dad if he'd seen you. I was convinced he'd thrown you away, until I saw the tiny footprints leading out the back door.
‘Bloody wet moggy again,’ said Dad, grabbing the mop.
I followed the footprints through the kitchen, out onto the back lawn, where they faded into the grass. I went to the bottom of the garden and called to you for hours, but all I could hear was the wind in the trees.
I thought about you alone in the dark and gloom, I thought about going after you for weeks. But by the time I'd worked up the nerve, I'd decided that you wouldn't grow big after all. You were just like all the others. Dad must have taken you. And if he hadn't, I would have flung you into the trees myself. Dad was, as always, right: of course it was just the cat.

I'm at college when Mum and Dad move house. They ask me to pick up the last few boxes on my way to visit them over the Christmas holidays.
The house is empty for a few months before the new owners move in and I pack the boxes into the van quickly. I'm locking the back door when I hear a howl coming from the woods. I can't help thinking of those little footprints, of you.
They'd proved long ago that there was no true gorilla, but I find myself walking down to the trees. It's probably a dog, or maybe a wounded animal.
I stand on the threshold and stare at the yellow eyes lighting faint paths across the undergrowth. It's just switches and cheap genetics, I tell myself, but even with special batteries, it seems impossible that they can still be working—it's been at least four years.
There is no true gorilla.
But if these gorillas are still switched on, then you…Are your eyes still gleaming in the dark? Are you still so small?
I am washed through with shame and longing. I abandoned you.
I race into the trees, pushing through the branches hung with failed silverbacks, their yellow eyes staring, their mournful barks filling the cold air.
Deep in the woods, I slump against a tree, looking for your yellow eyes. But there are so many gorillas. I hang my head.
I smell you before I see you, a pungent, musky smell. I lift my head and listen to the sound of your big feet landing on the soft pine needles. I wait.
The yellow eyes all turn to you as you enter the clearing.
Your steps seem mechanical at first, before I realize that you are moving naturally, as would a real wounded gorilla. You have a slight limp in your right front paw. You are magnificent, true gorilla size with a strip of silver fur across your back.
You don't see me at first. You reach up to a branch and you gently remove the remains of a pod from a half-opened gorilla with your big thick sensitive fingers. The tiny gorilla emerges silky and smooth, like you did when I first opened you. You switch it on and set it gently on the ground, before rescuing another, then another.
I am full of the thoughts of wounded gorillas. And there were thousands made, millions perhaps. I have betrayed the whole world. I cannot stifle my sobbing.
You turn towards me and rise up on your hind legs.
I am so small, but I hold out my hands in hallelujah, I hold up my face, ready to be smashed. I wait, trembling. I wait for you.
You come right up to me and put your face close to mine. You stare into my eyes. I notice that yours have deepened to dark brown.
You press my chest with your wounded, leathery hand.
I curl my fingers into yours and let my tears splash over your wound. Slowly, I feel your warmth transfuse into my body. You know me.
I watch as you gather more gorillas from the trees and stand them on the ground. Only one was supposed to make it, but now there is a whole troop coming to life under the frosty moon, eyes glinting off the trunks of the pines.
You look at me one last time, before you turn to the troop.
You beat your chest and they follow after you, deeper into the woods. I watch your silver threading into the darkness. I imagine plastic being spun into fur; I imagine forests that only the true and the brave can enter.
I drive to my parents' new house and unload the boxes.
‘How was the old house?’ asks Dad over lunch.
I want to tell Dad all about it, about the silver line that I can still see from the corner of my eye, but all I say is, ‘I bet at least some of those gorillas were recycled.’
And Dad smiles.