The Monkey

As a child, I lived in a fairly big town with a lively market. The market was the heart of the town. People came off the farms from miles around to trade in our town.

Now, at the market, between a peddler of fruits and a peddler of meats, and set back away into a corner, there was a little pile of sticks with a piece of cloth hanging over it that was home to an old man and his monkey. Sometimes during the day you could see among the shadows the piles of worthless things that made up the whole of the old man's life… some rags, a few old dishes.

The first time I saw the old man, I was a very small boy, but I remembered the day well. My grandfather took me to market, and gave me a few coins to spend. It was not the first time I had been to the market, but it was the first time I had been there with money. It is quite a different thing when you have money. I didn't know what to buy… some preserved fruit or the roasting meat you dipped in brown peppery sauce or the fried dumplings you dipped in sweet red sauce or the spicy cakes with nuts, and many other things that smelled good and were not like anything I got at home. And then there were toys: bands of paper round tight around sticks, wheels with bells that you could spin and jangle, puppets made of wood, and animals made of glass, and paper boxes you could fold in a dozen different ways. I walked up and down the market, holding my coins, with no idea how to spend them, when my eyes fell on that old man and his monkey.

The old man was playing a little flute made of bamboo. He did not play with strength. The notes were shaky and whispery. But the song was cheery in a wispy way, and the monkey bounded from foot to foot in a shambling little dance. The monkey was old and shabby, and so taken with fleas and mange it was covered more with scabs than fur. It didn't really dance, but jumped up and down grinning with its big brown teeth. If there had been a wind, one might have thought the monkey was merely swaying about in the breeze.

The hustle and bustle of the market place went on all around them, ignoring this pathetic attempt to entertain them. Occasionally a passerby would toss a penny or a half penny his way… the monkey would scoop up coins that fell on the ground and hand them to the old man. The old man might have been completely blind, for he seemed to stare out at the world in an empty way, and he allowed the monkey to lead him to the food stand when he had enough coins for a bowl of soup and couple of old apples for the monkey.

I bit my lower lip and looked back at all the stands, and considered all the good things to eat and toys I could buy. But the little display had worked on me, and I tossed the coins their way. The monkey scooped them up and handed them to the old man, who nodded. He felt them and knew they were not mere pennies.

"Thank you, sir." He said. He was the first person to call me sir. He did not know I was a boy, for he could barely see, and he may have imagined I was a man of some wealth and position.

Later that night, I got to thinking about that old man, and how he lived in that hovel, and how he was probably blind, and how ugly the monkey was, and how my money didn't make any difference in the end. They were still sleeping in that hovel, a strong wind would take it away and leave them with nothing.

I started to cry. My grandfather heard me and asked me what was wrong. I was crying so hard I couldn't speak. He was a short tempered man, and picked me up.

"Don't cry without any cause!" he said.

I choked back my tears and told him in halting breaths about the old man and his monkey. He was disgusted.

"You do them no good by crying!" he said. "And that money was for you, not for that wretched beggar. You show your grandfather no respect by taking his gift and giving it to someone else."

"Yes, sir," I said through my tears.

A few years later, I joined a secret society with two other boys, rough boys, one of them half orphaned and the other a bully. The first boy was the son of a woman who washed and mended clothes to keep the two of them alive. The other was the son of the baker. The baker was a big and mean man who yelled at children who asked for free cookies. Both of them lived as much in the streets as at home, with their parents working long hours.

They always had schemes, such as stealing fruit from the market or hooting at girls. But one day they were at their wits end for something to do and asked me for a plan.

"Let us play a trick on that old beggar at the market," I said.

I had come to hate the old man, for how he had tricked me out of my money, and how because of him my grandfather had yelled at me and never gave me presents.

"That sounds dumb," said the baker's son, but he said it nearly as a matter of form. For when I explained my plan, they both nodded and agreed to play along.

To begin, we went to the baker, where the baker's son was able to get some old bread dough that was turning brown. From this, we sculpted a kind of monkey shape and let it dry in the sun. It looked very nearly like a monkey if you glanced at it but a moment from several feet away. With the old man's poor sight, it would be good enough.

Late that night, with drunks just straggling home and policemen calling out in the streets to everyone that all was well, we ran from shadow to shadow, unseen, to the deserted marketplace.

We stopped a hundred feet away, behind the grocers' stall. We could see the old man from where we hid… it was a hot night and the flap of the lean-to was left open. The monkey was outside, and awake, chewing on his tail.

We had the fake monkey from the baker's son and the other boy had taken a big canvas bag from his mother… we could put the monkey in it.

Since it was my idea, and because I had not contributed anything, I was selected to take the monkey. I took the big canvas bag and we joined pinkies briefly – it was our secret handshake – before I began to sneak toward the lean-to.

I had only to be quiet, of course, and not worry so much about being seen since the old man was nearly blind. The old man was snoring and the monkey was making gurgling noises that covered up my soft footfalls. The only hard part would be taking the monkey… if he screeched the old man would wake up and the watchman might come. But I was mostly afraid that the beast would bite me with his big brown teeth.

I held my breath as I took the last step toward the monkey, and not wasting any time, I grabbed him by the neck and shoved him into the bag. He was lighter than I expected, and did not fight much, but chattered a bit. It was hard to get all the arms and legs and tail and head into the bag, and his smell was so bad it made my eyes water. I could not see what I was doing, but for some reason I could not get the bag cinched up.

I realized the reason I could not get the bag tightened up was that the monkey was tied up, and there was a thin rope coming from the mouth of the bag, getting in the way. I touched it with my hand and followed it… to my horror, I realized the other end was tied to something inside the lean-to.

I had not brought a knife, but the rope was not a good one. I found a frayed bit and worked at it with my teeth, breaking the threads, until a good hard pull would break the rope. I pulled, hard, and dragged the old man a foot outside the lean-to. The other end of the rope was tied to his toe! And still, he slept, even being yanked around in the night. I fooled with the rope some more and split it, shoved it all into the bag, and, twisting the bag shut, ran madly with my load to where my friends had been.

There was only a pile of brown dough, dropped to the ground, and losing all resemblance to a monkey. I stood there, holding a monkey in a canvas bag, feeling very alone. I dropped the bag. The monkey escaped and shuffled back to his home. I cursed my false friends all the way home. That was the end of our secret society.

I did not sleep that night. I came home, lay in bed for a few hours, and then stepped outside before the sun came up. The sky had the dimmest and lowest light, a smudge of gray on black. It was too dark for me to see, right away, that I had a surprise visitor waiting for me. But then I smelled him.

It was the monkey! He must have followed me home. He came to me, making gurgling noises, and reached out to grab my trousers. Clicked his teeth at me. Was he going to make an arrest? Was he going to turn me in? My head was spinning.

The fragment of rope was still tied to his collar, and I took this and led him back to market.

A patrolman was beside the lean-to. He watched while two other men scooped up the entire home, boards and blankets and old pots and pans, and tossed it all into a cart for garbage. "Heave-ho," said one man. The other man slapped the horse on the rear. The horse and cart rolled away, the sound of the wheels echoing off of stones in the morning air.

The monkey made a desperate monkey sound and pulled free, the rope burning my hand a bit. He ran spryly, clambering after the horse and cart. He ran more quickly than I would have thought possible, and was able in a moment to catch up and swing himself into the cart, where he started to rummage through the man's belongings. The cart kept moving, and I thought the monkey would go with all the man's other possessions to the dump. But as the cart became small in the distance, the monkey leaped off and came back in a hurry.

He bounded back, chattering furiously, and when he was close enough I saw that he held something in his hand. He gave it to me.

©1995 by Kurtis Scaletta