The Black Monkey by Edith L. Tiempo

Two weeks already she had stayed in the hunt on the precipice, alone except for the visits of her husband. Carlos came regularly once a day and stayed three or four hours, but his visits seemed to her too short and far between. Sometimes, after he had left and she thought she would be alone again, one or the other of the neighbors came up unexpectedly, and right away those days became different, or she became different in a subtle but definite way. For the neighbors caused a disturbed balance in her which was relieving and necessary. Sometimes it was one of the women, coming up with some fruits, papayas, perhaps, or wild ink berries, or guavas. Sometimes the children, to grind her week’s supply of corn meal in the cubbyhole downstairs. Their chirps and meaningless giggles broke the steady turn of the stone grinder, scraping to a slow agitation the thoughts that had settled and almost hardened in the bottom of her mind. She would have liked it better if these visits were longer, but they could not be; for the folks came to see her, yet she couldn’t come to them, and she, a sick woman, wasn’t really with her when they sat there with her. The women were uneasy in the hut and she could say nothing to the children, and it seemed it was only when the men came to see her when there was the presence of real people. Real people, and she real with them.
As when old Emilio and Sergio left their carabaos standing in the clearing and crossed the river at low tide to climb solemnly up the path on the precipice, their faces showing brown and leathery in the filtered sunlight of the forest as they approached her door. Coming in and sitting on the floor of the eight-by-ten hut where she lay, looking at her and chewing tobacco, clayey legs crossed easily, they brought about them the strange electric of living together, of showing one to another lustily across the clearing, each driving his beast, of riding the bull cart into the timber to load dead trunks of firewood, of listening in a screaming silence inside their huts at night to the sound of real or imagined shots or explosions, and mostly of another kind of silence, the kid that bogged down between the furrows when the sun was hot and the soils stony and the breadth for words lay tight and furry upon their tongues. They were slow of words even when at rest, rousing themselves to talk numbingly and vaguely after long periods of chewing.
Thinking to interest her, their talk would be of the women’s doings, soap-making and the salt project, and who made the most coconut oil that week, whose dog has caught sucking eggs from whose poultry shed, show many lizards and monkeys they trapped and killed in the corn fields and yards around the four houses. Listening to them was hearing a remote story heard once before and strange enough now to be interesting again. But it was last two weeks locatable in her body, it was true, but not so much a real pain as a deadness and heaviness everywhere, at once inside of her as well as outside.
When the far nasal bellowing of their carabaos came up across the river the men rose to go, and clumsy with sympathy they stood at the doorstep spiting out many casual streaks of tobacco and betel as they stretched their leave by the last remarks. Marina wished for her mind to go on following them down the cliff to the river across the clearing, to the group of four huts on the knoll where the smoke spiraled blue glints and grey from charcoal pits, and the children chased scampering monkeys back into forested slopes only a few feet away. But when the men turned around the path and disappeared they were really gone, and she was really alone again.
From the pallet where she lay a few inches from the door all she could set were the tops of ipil trees arching over the damp humus soil of the forest, and a very small section of the path leading from her hut downward along the edge of the precipice to the river where it was a steep short drop of fifteen or twenty feet to the water. They used a ladder on the bushy side of the cliff to climb up and don the path, let down and drawn up again, and no one from the outside the area could know of the secret hut built so close to the guerilla headquarters. When the tide was low and then water drained toward the sea, the river was shallow in some parts and the ladder could be reached by wading on a pebbly stretched to the base of the cliff. At high tide an outrigger boat had to be rowed across. They were fortunate to have the hiding place, very useful to them whenever they had to flee from their hut on the knoll below, every time a Japanese patrol was reported by the guerillas to be prowling around the hills.
Two weeks ago, in the night, they had fled up to the forest again, thinking a patrol had penetrated. Marina remembered how she and Flavia and Flavia’s daughter had groped their way up to the precipice behind their faster neighbors, how the whole of that night the three of them had cowered in this dark hut while all around monkeys gibbered in the leaves, and pieces of voices from the guerillas on the river pieced into the forest like thin splintered glass. And all the time the whispered talk of their neighbors crouched in the crevices of the high rocks above them floated down like echoes of the whispers in her own mind. Nobody knew the reason for the harm sounded by headquarters unto the next morning when Carlos and two other guerillas paddled around the river from camp and had told everyone to come down from their precipice and return to the huts; it was not enemy troops but the buys chasing after the Japanese prisoner who had escaped.
Following the notice of Carlos, old Emilio and others went back to the knoll the day after the alarm. She had stayed, through two weeks now. Sick and paralyzed on one side, she had to stay where she was a liability to no one in case of danger. She had to stay until the Japanese prisoner was caught, and if he had been able to slip across the channel to Cebu and a Japanese invasion of this guerilla area was instigated, she would be safe in this hideout.
Listening closely for several nights, she had learned to distinguish the noises made by the monkey in the tree nearest her door. She was sure the tree had only one tenant, a big one, because the sounds it made were unusually heavy and definite. She would hear a precise rustle, just as if it shifted once in its sleep and was quiet again, or when the rustling and the grunts were continuous for a while, she knew it was looking for a better perch and muttering at its discomfort. Sometimes there were precipitate rubbing sounds and a thud and she concluded it accidentally slipped and landed on the ground. She always heard it arrive late at night, long after the forest had settled down. Even now as she lay quietly, she knew the invisible group of monkeys had begun to come, she knew from the coughing that started from far up to the slope, sound like wind on the water, gradually coming downward.
She must have been asleep about four hours when she awoke uneasily, aware of movements under the hut. Blackness had pushed into the room, heavily and moistly, sticky damp around her eyes, under her chin and down the back of her neck, where it prickled like fine hair creeping on end. Her light had burned out. Something was fumbling at the door of the compartment below the floor, where the supply of rice and corn was stored in tall bins. The door was pushed and rattled cautiously, slow thuds of steps moved around the house. Whatever it was, it circled the hut once, twice and stop again to jerk at the door. It sounded like a monkey, perhaps the monkey in the tree, trying to break in the door to the corn and rice. It seemed to her it took care not to pass the stairs, retracing its steps to the side of the hut each time so she could not see it through her open door. Hearing the sounds and seeing nothing, she could not see it through her open door. Hearing the sounds and seeing nothing, she felt it imperative that she should see the intruder. She set her face to the long slit at the base of the wall and the quick chilly wind came at her like a whisper suddenly flung into her face. Trees defined her line vision, merged blots that seemed to possess life and feeling running through them like thin humming wires. The footsteps had come from the unknown boundary and must have resolved back into it because she could not hear them anymore. She was deciding the creature had gone away when she saw a stooping shape creep along the wall and turn back, slipping by so quickly she could deceive herself into believing she imagined it. A short, stooping creature, its footsteps heavy and regular and then unexpectedly running together as if the feet were fired and sore. She had suspected the monkey but didn’t feel sure, even seeing the quick shaped she didn’t feel sure, until she heard the heavy steps turn toward the tree. Then she could distinguish clearly the rubbing sounds as it hitched itself up the tree.
She had a great wish to be back below with the others. Now and then the wind blew momentary gaps through the leaves and she saw fog from the river below, fog white and stingy, floating over the four huts on the knoll. Along about ten in the morning the whole area below would be under the direct that of the sun. The knoll was a sort of islet made by the river bending into the horseshoe shape; on this formation of the two inner banks they had made their clearing and built their huts. On one outer bank the guerilla camp hid in thick grove of madre-de-cacao and undergrowth and on the other outer bank, the other arm of the horseshoe, abruptly rose the steep precipice where the secret hut stood. The families asleep on the knoll were themselves isolated, she thought; they were as on an island cut off by the water and mountain ranges surrounding them; shut in with it, each one tossing his thought to the others, no one keeping it privately, no one really taking a deliberate look at it in the secrecy of his own mind. In the hut by herself it seemed she must play it out, toss it back and forth.
Threads of mist tangled under the trees. Light pricked through the suspended raindrops; the mind carried up the sound of paddling from the river. In a little while him distinctly. Neena! Neena! Her name thus exploded through the air by his voice came like a shock after hours of stealthy noises.
He took the three rungs of the steps in one stride and was beside her on the floor. Always he came in a flood of size and motions and she couldn’t see all of him at once. A smell of stale sun and hard walking clung to his clothes and stung into her; it was the smell of many people and many places and the room felt even smaller with him in it. In a quick gesture that had become a habit he touched the back of his hand on her forehead.
“Good,” he announced, “no fever.”
With Carlo’s presence, the room bulged with the sense of people and activity, pointing up with unbearable sharpness her isolation, her fears, her helplessness.
“I can’t stay up here,” she told him, not caring anymore whether he despised her cowardice. “I must go down. There is something here. You don’t know what’s happening. You don’t know, or you won’t take me stay.”
He looked at her and then around the room as though her fear squatted there listening to them.
“It’s the monkey again.”
“Man or monkey or devil, I can’t stay up here anymore.”
“Something must be done,” he said, “this can’t go on.”
“I’ll go down and be with the others.”
He raised his head, saying wearily, “I wish that were the best thing, Neena, God knows I wish it were. But you must go down only when you’re ready. These are critical days for all of us in this area. If something breaks–the Jap, you know, think what will happen to you down there, with me at headquarters. You’ve known of reprisals.”
He looked at her and his sooty black eyes were like the bottom of a deep drained well. “I wish I could be here at night. What I’m saying is this: it’s a job you must do by yourself, since nobody is allowed out of headquarters after dark. That monkey must be shot or you’re not safe here anymore.”
“You know I can’t shoot.”
“We are continuing our lessons. You still remember, don’t you?”
“It was long ago and it was not really in earnest.”
He inspected the chambers of the rifle. “You didn’t need it then.”
He put his life into her hands.
She lifted it and as its weight yielded coldly to her hands, she said suddenly, “I’m glad we’re doing this.”
“You remember how to use the sight?”
“Yes,” and she could not help smiling a little. “All the o’clock you taught me.”
“Aim it and shoot.”
She aimed at a scar on the trunk of the tree near the door, the monkey’s tree. She pressed on the trigger. Nothing happened. She pressed it again. “It isn’t loaded.”
“It is.”
“The trigger won’t move. Something’s wrong.”
He took it from her. “It’s locked, you forgot it as usual.” He put it aside. “Enough now, you’ll do. But you unlock first. Remember, nothing can ever come out of a locked gun.”
He left early in the afternoon, about two o’clock.
Just before the sundown the monkey came. It swung along the trees along the edge of the precipice, then leaped down on the path and wandered around near the hut. It must be very, very hungry, or it would not be so bold. It sidled forward all the time eying her intently, inching toward the grain room below the stairs. As it suddenly rushed toward her all the anger of the last two years of war seemed to unite into one necessity and she snatched up the gun, shouting and screaming, “Get out! Thief! Thief!”
The monkey wavered. It did not understand the pointed gun she brandished and it came forward, softly, slowly, its feet hardly making any sound on the ground. She aimed, and as it slipped past the stairs and was rounding the corner to the grain room she fired again and once again, straight into its back.
The loud explosions resounded through the trees. The birds in the forest flew in confusion and their high excited chatter floated down through the leaves. But she did not hear them – the only reality was the twisting, grunting shape near the stairs and after a minute it was quiet.
She couldn’t help laughing a little, couldn’t help feeling exhilarated. The black monkey was dead, it was dead, she had killed it. Strangely, too, she was thinking of the escaped prisoner that she strangely feared him but was curious about him, and that now she could think of him openly to herself. She could talk about him now, she thought. Shoe could talk of him to Carlos and to anybody and not hide the sneaky figure of him with the other black terrors of her mind.
She realized that she was still holding the gun. This time, she thought, she had unlocked it. And with rueful certainty, she knew she could do it again, tonight tomorrow, whenever it was necessary. The hatter of some monkeys came to her from a far up in the forest. From that distance, it was vague, a lost sound; hearing it jarred across her little triumph, and she wished, like someone lamenting a lost innocence, that she had never seen a gun or fired one.

1 comment:

rerijo said...

vry impormative <3

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