Wednesday, March 30, 2005

THE BLACK MONKEY by Edith Lopez Tiempo

Two weeks already she had stayed in the hut on the precipice, alone except for the visits of her husband. Carlos came regularly once a day and stayed two or three 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 which was relieving and necessary. Sometimes it was one of the women coming up with ripe fruits, papayas, perhaps, or wild ink berries, or guavas. Sometimes the children, to grind her week’s supply of corn meat in the cubby hole downstairs. Their chirps and meaningless giggles broke the steady turn of the stone grinder, and scraped 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 them as 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 up 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 to one side of the clearing and crossed the river at low tide to climb 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 but where she lay, looking at her and chewing tobacco, clayey legs crossed easily, they brought about them the strange electric feeling of living together, of shouting one to another across the clearing, each driving his beast, of riding the bullcart into the timber to load dead trunks for 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 kind that bogged down between the furrows when the sun was hot and the soil stony and the breath for words lay tight and furry upon their tongues. They were slow of words even when at rest, rousing themselves to talk mumblingly 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 was caught sucking eggs from whose poultry shed, how many lizards and monkeys they had trapped and killed in the cornfields 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 also annoyingly like the more actual discomfort of the last three weeks-located 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 two men rose to go and clumsy with sympathy they stood at the doorstep spitting out quick casual streaks of tobacco and betel nut as they stretched their leave with last remarks. Marina wished for her mind to go on following them down the cliff to the river and across to the clearing, to the group of four huts on the knoll where smoke spiraled blue glints and grey from the charcoal pits, and the children chased scampering monkeys back into the 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 see were the tops of ipil-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 twenty or thirty feet to the water. They used a ladder on the bushy side of the cliff to climb up and down the path, let down and drawn up again, and no one from outside the area could know of the secret hut built so close to guerrilla headquarters. When the tide was low and the water drained toward the sea, the river was shallow in some parts and the ladder could be reached, wading on a pebbly stretch 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 every time the guerrillas reported a Japanese patrol prowling around the hills and they all had to run from their huts on the knoll below.

Three weeks ago in the night they had all fled up to the forest thinking a patrol had finally penetrated. That night she had twisted her kneecap. Marina remembered how she and Flavia and Flavia’s daughter had groped their way up 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 the monkeys gibbered in the leaves, and pieces of voices from a group of guerrillas on the river pierced into the forest like thin splintered glass. And all the time the whispered talk of their neighbors who were crouched in the crevices of the high rocks above them floated down like echoes of the whispers in her own mind. Finally there was no pain, only numbness when the whole leg swelled up. Nobody knew the reason for the alarm sounded by headquarters until the next morning when Carlos and two other guerrillas paddled around the river from camp and told everyone to come down from the precipice; it was not enemy troops but the boys chasing after the Japanese prisoner who had escaped.

Following the information of Carlos, old Emilio and the others returned to the huts on the knoll. Only she had stayed, through three weeks now. The doctor had come in and set the knee-she did not want to think about that. Paralysed on one side, she chose to stay here. Up in this hut she was a liability to no one in case of danger. And she had to stay until the Japanese prisoner was caught. This was guerrilla area; if he had been able to slip across the channel to Cebu, they could expect a Japanese invasion. No one need worry about her even then, for 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 so 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 was continuous for a while, she knew it was looking for a better perch and perhaps muttering a little at its discomfort. Sometimes there were precipitate rubbing sounds and a thud and she concluded it had 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 soughing that started from far up the slope, a sound like wind on the water, gradually coming downward.

She must have been asleep about four hours when she awoke uneasily. She was aware of movements under the hut. It was about a couple of hours before dawn. 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 stopped again to jerk at the door. It sounded like a monkey, perhaps the monkey in the tree trying to break in the door for the corn and rice. it seemed to her it took care not to pass the stairs, retracing its steps around the side of the hut each time so she could not see it through her open door. Hearing the sounds and seeing nothing, she felt it imperative to look at 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 of vision, merged blots that seemed to possess life and feeling running through them like thin humming wires. The footsteps had come from that 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 were heavy and regular and then unexpectedly running together as if the feet were tired or sore. She had suspected the monkey but didn’t feel sure, even seeing the quick shape 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.

She strained to hear more sounds but not even the small insects clinging oil the under part of the leaves were stirring. Slowly and piece by piece she relaxed. For somebody-anybody! If Flavia’s daughter didn’t have tile malaria-She told herself she was more irritated than afraid; for the monkey knew she was there, she was sure it knew and its keen primeval instincts must have also sensed her helplessness. Tile thought was repugnant. She lay on her side that didn’t have the numbness and stared out of tile door into tile trees. Tile lightening shadows moved like long talons scooping out grey caves and hollows in tile leaves. She couldn’t go back to sleep.

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, fog white and stringy floating over the four huts on the knoll. Along about ten in the morning the whole area below would be under the direct heat of the sun. Tile knoll was a sort of islet made by the river bending into a horseshoe shape; on this formation of the two inner banks the families had made their clearings and built their huts. On one outer bank tile guerrilla camp hid in a thick grove of madre-de-cacao and undergrowth, and the other outer bank, which was the other arm of the horseshoe, abruptly rose to the steep precipice where the secret hut stood. The hut buried in the trees, where she was safe because almost totally isolated. The families asleep on the knoll were themselves isolated, she thought; they were as on an island cut off by tile water and mountain ranges surrounding them; shut in with their fear of the enemy’s penetration they played a game 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 tile hut it seemed she must play it out by herself, toss it back and forth, back and forth.

Threads of mist tangled under the trees. Light pricked through like suspended raindrops; the wind carried up the sound of paddling from the river. In a little while she heard a voice calling down the path. Carlos. When he was near the hut, she heard him distinctly. Neena! Neena! Her name seemed to explode through the air, it came like a shock after the hours of stealthy noises.

He took the three rungs of the steps in one stride and was beside her on the floor. Always lie came in a flood of size and motion 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 Carlos’ presence the room bulged with the sense of people activity, pointing tip 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 make 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. God knows I wish it were. You decided this yourself, and very wisely, Neena. 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 am 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 your 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 rifle 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’clocks 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 sundown, the monkey came. It swung along the trees on the edge of the precipice and leaped down on the path and wandered around near the hut. It must be very, very hungry, she thought, with a little wonder which she could not help. it must be very hungry or it would not be so bold. it sidled forward, all the time eyeing her intently, inching toward the grain room below the stairs. As it suddenly rushed toward her, all the anger and frustration 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. 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 didn’t hear them-that only was real, the twisting, grunting shape near the stairs, and after a minute it was quiet.

She couldn’t help laughing a little, couldn’t help her strange exhilaration. The black monkey was dead, it was dead, she had killed it. Strangely, too, she was thinking of the escaped prisoner somewhere in the range, and it was part of the strangeness that she feared him but was curious about him. And then she knew: now she could think of him openly to herself. She could even talk about him now. She could talk of him to Carlos and to anybody and not hide the sneaking figure of him with the other black terrors in her mind.

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 chatter of some monkeys came from far up in the forest. From that distance it was a 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 nor fired one.

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