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Monkey Say, Monkey Do

Karuna Das

When I first heard the monkey speak, I thought I imagined it. I mean, right? What else would I think? I once read a novel about a telepathic gorilla--an environmentalist thing I found a bit on the preachy side--and I figured something had tapped into my subconscious and twisted that story to make it seem like my experience. Then the monkey spoke again. Not telepathy. Audible vibrations bridging the gulf between us. Speech, not screech. Sounds forming words, and English ones at that. “I hot, new man,” the monkey said. At least it seemed to say that. The monkey spoke with an accent that made it hard to understand, like it was from Jamaica or some other Caribbean island. It uttered the phrase with a lilting delivery and adding a “j” to the start of I, dropping the “t” at the end of hot, and pronouncing man as mon. Jye ha nu mon.

In any case, my interpretation made sense, in the sense that if the monkey could talk, it might well say something like that. The temperature had to be near one hundred degrees. And from the monkey’s perspective, I was indeed a new man, having arrived at the exhibit only a few moments before. The monkey stared at me as it repeated the words over and over.

I had no idea how to respond. For starters, the monkey being hot didn’t strike me as that big a deal. Don’t most monkeys live in tropical climates? Yet, the monkey made it sound like an urgent situation. Even so, what was I supposed to do about it? Ask the zookeeper to bring the monkey a tall glass of ice water? Uh, no. Soon enough they’d be locking me up somewhere.

The monkey stopped repeating the words but continued staring at me, as if awaiting a reply. With its greyish fur and pinkish face, the monkey looked like a sad old man. It kinda broke my heart to see it like that.

“Okay,” I managed to vocalize. I accompanied my speech with an emphatic nod. The monkey nodded back at me. Okay, I thought. We understand each other. Maybe.

The monkey turned away from me and toward the other monkeys in the enclosure. That’s when I noticed none of the other monkeys looked quite like the talking monkey. I read the placard describing the habitat: Monkey Island is home to a variety of species native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, including macaques, langurs, and gibbons.

#

When I got home, I did some poking around online and made two surprising discoveries. First, as far as I could tell, the creature in question was a rhesus monkey, officially a macaque. It turns out they’re one of the most common species in existence. So why was that surprising? Because they’re rarely kept in zoos these days, especially in the United States, due to their tendency to carry a virus that’s deadly to humans if it jumps to us through a bite or scratch. That’s not to say they’re not kept in captivity. But it’s usually in research labs. They’ve been instrumental in all sorts of medical breakthroughs. They’ve even been launched into space.

The second surprising discovery concerns the inability of monkeys to speak. Scientists have long believed they, and all other nonhuman primates, lack the necessary vocal anatomy. But a recent study found that not to be the case. It concluded macaques--and presumably all other monkeys and apes, since they’re all more or less physically the same in that area--do have vocal tracts suitable for generating the sounds of speech, including a range of vowels similar to ours. What’s holding them back? Their brains. They didn’t evolve the required neural wiring.

This got me thinking. What if an individual monkey--specifically the one I’d chanced upon--had evolved what the study called a speech-ready brain? I mean, whoa, right?

But the monkey still would’ve had to learn human--specifically English--language. I imagined Reese (the shortened version of rhesus I’d just come up with as their name) being taught vocabulary by experts at some institute. Most of the words they’d spoken was basic speech that could have its meaning communicated through accompanying behavior. The only somewhat advanced one was new. How would you get a concept like that across to a monkey?

How many other words did Reese know? Had Reese’s trainers realized their subject could speak, or had Reese not let on that they developed the ability? How had Reese gotten from the lab to the zoo? And why had Reese spoken to me? So many questions. The last of them seemed key. I couldn’t help feeling I’d been singled out.

One thing was obvious: Reese didn’t belong there.

I should be clear that I’m nobody’s idea of a hero. I don’t take risks. I don’t do things that might call attention to myself. I try to blend in. Be normal. I’m frankly kinda boring.

I’m not even an animal lover. I like them just fine, preferably from a distance or cooked well done. My family had a dog when I was a kid. I sometimes walked him, but he was mostly my dad’s responsibility, and solely his joy. (My mom often said the dog was his sole joy.) When I moved into my own place, I got a big aquarium and filled it with little fish: goldfish, guppies, mollies, platies, tetras, bettas. I felt peaceful watching them, so at ease underwater. But the tank was a pain in the butt to clean, and I kept forgetting to feed them, so after a year or so I sold it.

Yet there I was, committed to liberating a monkey from the zoo. Not just any monkey, though. A talking one. I didn’t know how I’d do it. I didn’t fully know why. I most definitely didn’t know what I’d do with Reese once I rescued them. I just knew I had to.

My phone rang. I checked the caller ID. I debated not answering. But I had no choice.

“Hey, Pops,” I said. “Is she …?”

#

Jye ha nu mon,” Reese called out as I made eye contact across the water-filled trench separating Monkey Island from the public.

“Ditto,” I replied. I wiped sweat from my forehead, to show them I shared the feeling. We had record highs all that week, most of which I spent in an air-conditioned environment. Now I was out doing reconnaissance. I leaned over the barrier and examined the architectural design of the enclosure. After a drop of about fifteen feet, the trench looked to be ten or so feet wide. A short embankment led to the island--actually a peninsula--maybe eight feet below my level. Assuming I could make the leap from this side, which seemed doubtful, I’d have no way to get back across and up and over the barricade, especially carrying a monkey, even one that small. I scanned the rear wall of the habitat and spotted a square metal door. Surely it would be locked.

“See the ram,” said Reese. At least that’s how I made sense of the sounds see ta rom, now that I’d attuned my ear to the monkey’s quasi-Jamaican accent. “See ta rom,” Reese repeated several times, almost like a chant.

I unfolded the zoo map I stuck in my back pocket when the gate attendant handed it to me and located my next destination. See ta rom, I said to myself as I headed that direction.

As I made my way past the crocodile pond, I felt a vibration. I took out my phone and checked the caller ID. Twice in a week?

“Hey,” I said into the microphone.

“You should think about coming out,” replied my father’s voice. “Soon.”

A few minutes later I stood looking across another trench at the rocky home of the zoo’s wild goats and sheep, which a sign informed me included several species of the latter native to Asia: argali, urial, mouflon.

See ta rom, I reminded myself. And right then I did. One of them anyway. I stared at him, wondering if he, too, would turn and speak to me. In a way, I hoped so. That would confirm I’d slipped into full-blown delusion.


The ram turned and stared at me but didn’t speak. I noticed something else unusual, though. Instead of curving back over the ears and above the head and neck, like on a domestic bighorn, this ram’s horns stuck out to the sides so much they formed a heart around his face. See ta rom see ta rom see ta rom, I witnessed myself thinking. Had the monkey taken over my mind?

I wondered what Reese actually had in mind. Was I supposed to somehow get the ram to break into Monkey Island with those heart-shaped horns? Or should I be like the ram myself?

Whatever I did would have to wait. I’d been called to fulfill another duty.

#

The flight from my city to theirs is really just a hop. You go up, you go down. You could drive it in four hours. Far enough to keep them from dropping by on the way home from Costco, but not so far I felt compelled to stay longer than a night or two when I visited. I made a lot of trips like that during the first year or so after her diagnosis. Fewer once she stopped recognizing me. The rapid progression of her dementia, and especially her developing it so young, threw me for a real loop. This was before I saw that Still Alice movie a few Christmases ago. (Phew. That one put me through the wringer.) I’d known for some time we were nearing the end.

The plane touched the ground before I had much chance to think about what to say to my dad. I probably wouldn’t need to say much, as long as I didn’t mind silence. He was a man of few words, and he seemed to prefer others follow suit.

I climbed into the passenger seat, and he nodded his customary greeting. He guided their 1997 Plymouth Breeze--a car they’d had a full twenty years, two-thirds of my life--into the slow-moving terminal traffic.

“We gotta get her out of there,” he announced.

“What do you mean?” I asked.


“She’s dying.” His response didn’t seem like an answer to my question, but at least he wasn’t in denial about the situation.


“So why would we move her?”

“So she can do it at home.” Okay, I thought. A reasonable enough wish. It might even be what she wanted.

“Have you asked the hospice people about it?”

“Too much paperwork. I’m sick and tired of signing papers.”

“Okay,” I said. “But to get her released you have to sign the forms.”

He punched the center of the steering wheel. The horn beeped like the bleat of a sheep. “Like hell I do.” He returned to his normal composure, or impassiveness. We rode in silence.

The Breeze glided into the semicircle drive and came to a stop right in front of the main entrance to the facility. My dad looked at me and nodded, as if I should know what came next.

“What? We’re just going to saunter in and bring her out?”

“No. You are.” He handed me a slip of paper. “Door codes.”

“Dad …”

“Don’t call attention to yourself and no one will say boo.”

“Dad …”

“Are you part of this family or not?”

“Of course!” I took a moment to process. “Isn’t she pretty much bedbound?”

“Wheelchair’s folded up in the closet. She’s not heavy.”

“Doesn’t she have a nurse or someone with her all the time?”

“Not yet.”

“What are you planning to do once you get her home? How will you care for her?” I looked him in the eye. He turned his face away.

“Leave that to me.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest. I knew the posture well. He’d say nothing else about it.

Heat blasted me when I stepped out of the car. Jye ha nu mon, I thought to myself.

#

I pushed open the door, which had been left ajar, and stepped into her dimly lit room. Tranquil music sounded from a portable CD player on the dresser. I sat on the edge of the bed and rested my palm atop her bony hand. Her skin felt so cold that were it not for the intermittent rasp of her breath I might’ve mistaken her for dead.

I have no idea how much time passed before a figure appeared in the doorway, backlit by the hallway fluorescents.

“Oh,” said the shadow.

“I’m the son,” I said. The shadow nodded, then disappeared.

A few moments later another figure appeared. This one raised a hand in greeting, then motioned for me to step into the hallway. When I joined them there, I saw it was a nurse.

“We’ve been trying to call your father.”

“Okay.”

“We thought maybe he wasn’t picking up because of the, uh, incident. You know, yesterday.”

“I just got into town. What incident?”

“Well … it wasn’t really an incident. More of a misunderstanding, I think, about what we’re able to do in terms of helping with the transition. I explained that we can give her meds for pain if she seems to be having any, but we’re not allowed to do what vets do for animals.”

“He asked you to euthanize her?”

“Not in so many words. Or at least not using that particular one.”

“And then what happened?”

“He got kinda upset. He had to be, uh, escorted out of the building.”

“Did he hurt anyone?” I’d never known him to be violent.

“Oh no. Nothing like that. And it’s completely natural for him to be upset. But we don’t want him to miss out on saying goodbye. She could go any time now. You can tell him it’s okay for him to come back, so long as he doesn’t, you know, lose control like that again.”

“He’s more likely to take you up on that invitation if he hears it directly from you,” I said, knowing it to be true. “He’s in his car right outside the front door.”

The nurse nodded, then turned and walked away. I stepped back into the room. My mouth fell open when I saw my mom sitting up in bed. I hurried over and sat facing her. I took her hand and gently squeezed it. She squeezed back. Her wide eyes looked right into mine.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.

“You know who I am?”

“I should think so. I brought you into this world, and now you’ve come to see me out of it.” Her eyes shined at me like beacons through the darkness. I nodded and tried to speak, but no words came out. Instead, we held hands and traded sighs until she said, “See to Ron.”

“What?”

“Ronald. Your father. He’ll need someone to look after him. Just for a while.”

“The nurse went to get him. He’ll be right here.”

“I don’t want him to see me like this.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “He’ll be thrilled.” Even if he doesn’t really show it.

“It would give him false hope,” she said. She raised her hand and pressed it to my cheek. “This was all I needed to be ready.” Then she lay back onto the bed. As she gazed up at me, the twinkle in her eyes faded. Her lids closed. Her breath slowed but didn’t yet stop.

When my dad appeared in the doorway a moment later, the light behind him created a halo around his head. Not just above it, like an angel, but along the sides, like a glowing helmet. Or a pair of heart-shaped horns.

#

When I returned to the zoo, three weeks after my previous visit, Reese no longer inhabited Monkey Island. Maybe I imagined it after all. I mean, a talking monkey, much less one with a Jamaican accent, is kind of hard to believe.

I’m certain I did not imagine the conversation with my mom. It turns out a lot of people, even ones with dementia, experience a sudden period of mental clarity and alertness in the hours before death. They call it terminal lucidity.

“Aren’t monkeys cool?” I asked, turning from the exhibit to face my dad, whom I’d convinced to stay with me for a couple weeks. Aside from work I didn’t have a lot going on that summer. With Mom gone and laid to rest, he had no commitments until the school year started and he went back to teaching math to middle-schoolers. “They’re practically human.”

“Except for when they fling poop at you,” he replied. After a moment, he looked at me with deep sorrow in his eyes, a sadness I sensed went beyond grief over the loss of his wife. He sighed, then shrugged and added, “I guess we kinda do that, too.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess we do.” I put a hand over his on the barricade and squeezed. “Hey, mon. Let’s go see ta rom.”