First Monkey

by Marc Zeedar,

"I'll be right back," the foreign lady announced to the world, her voice crisp and crackling. In a careful but distracted manor she shut the car door, glanced around distastefully, and appropriately grimaced at the surroundings. To the left stretched a dingy wall of single-story, flat-roofed, concrete homes chained together, broken only by occasional doorways blocked with African women chatting as they worked, and the occasional tree growing in a hidden courtyard drooping its few branches over the wall, looking foreign and unnatural amid the concrete. To the right a barren sand-filled valley stretched out to greet the gentle dunes touching the horizon. Her narrow lips puckered -- to someone of her taste even cheap wine was like vinegar. The tattered children playing in the street, the older girls sitting in the sand of the sidewalk before the wall, caring for the babies, the fact that the drab brown and white of the scene was broken only by the pale blue of the sky; those were all things the lady would never, could never, understand.

So she smoothed her Paris dress, mentally checked her hair, make-up, and the dozen or so other items so vital to a woman's character and appearance. With effort, she plastered a fake smile on her face, and turned and spoke through the car window: "Now I won't be long dear. You wait in the car."

The boy in the back seat slumped, pouting. The echoing words slammed down on him with the dreadful finality of a prison gate. He wondered if he could disobey. He wanted to get out, to do something, anything. He watched as his mother trotted up to the iron gate that so impressed her and rang the bell. After a moment a servant opened the door, and she disappeared inside.

As soon as the grilled door slammed shut, the boy rose and peeked about. They were in an upper-class area. Nice white houses with high white walls to keep out people and reflect the bright sun. A few houses were a tan that matched the sand.

The street is black asphalt; no potholes, traffic is too infrequent for that, but heat has cracked the road in places. The curbs are nonexistent, covered with sand. The boy can see the street radiating heat. The car is getting hot too. The window is down, and, like clockwork, once a minute the wind blows in, cooling and drying the hot skin. It's the ultimate pleasure, the ultimate drug.



The skin damp and sticky with sweat; you feel a tickle on your face, you touch the spot but nothing is there. Again a tickle, again nothing. Finally a bead forms and the sweat trickles down your cheek. Nothing exists but the incredible heat, the tickles all over your body, the humid despair.

Then: the cooling breeze, ever so gently drifting in, lifting you up in a reverie of spiritual and physical heaven; you can feel the hairs on your skin as they rise up to catch the wind, and suddenly you shiver, and cold runs through your body. Then is is gone like it was never there. Your skin is hot like fever, humid, and now you are strangely tired.



The boy opened the door and got out. The breeze was slightly stronger here. They were near the coast. The boy could smell the salt in the sea air, or imagined he could; it was impossible to tell which, since the heat blended imagination and reality into one.

He wandered over to the white wall. Above him hung the beautiful green fronds of plants. They were truly green; the owners where French and had the money to water. That was why his mother was here. But even the wealthy couldn't stop the dust. That was the difference between green green and Senegal green -- the dust. Dark green branches choked with a heavy film of dust.

You think it's beautiful, in its own way. But even the dusty green looks out of place against the sand dunes behind the house. Sticky, you think. The bushes are sticky, the trees are sticky, the plants are sticky. Not sticky like glue, but sticky like twigs Scotch taped together, like a bundle of sticks for firewood. Except these are green, even the stems.

The boy touches the wall, breaking off one of the crackly cement points that cover all the walls. He leans his back to the wall, feeling the sharp edges touch his back. Some are touching his shirt, others touch the bare arms and feel cold even though they're hot.

If he moves sideways now his back will be cut, scratched and bloody. He fingers the idea for a moment. It is tempting. His mother would be upset. It might bring some excitement into his life. It wouldn't hurt much, and it was worth it if it upset his mother. He could tell her some of the African children did it. That would make her happy. She would be angry at them instead of him.

They boy remained in position, thinking slowly. It was hard to think fast in the heat. The small of his back was beginning to sweat, closed off from the breeze. He could feel one tiny trickle of sweat drop down his back in jerky movements, leaving a trail of ticklish feeling behind it. He ached to scratch, but restrained himself. It was almost self-torture, simply because he didn't feel like moving. He knew he would eventually move; but for now time didn't exist, so the future didn't matter.

His eyes wandered around in an effort to distract his mind. There were some older kids playing soccer in the street a little farther on. They were using a tiny deflated plastic ball. Just like the ones his mother bought him every time they went to town, since his kept getting holes in them. For a moment the boy wished he had brought his leather soccer ball. They could really play a game with that. But then the leather ball was really tough; they probably would hurt their feet, not being used to it. He sure had when he first got the ball. But the kids were older, too. They probably wouldn't let him play anyway.

Still further on were some smaller kids, imitating the others, except kicking a tin can. The boy noticed one of the younger boys was very good. He would dribble past the others, pass the can behind his left foot, pull it forward past another man, and then kick with a brilliant left hook through the goalie's legs. He was admittedly the best. The boy felt proud for some reason. The kid was really a good player. If he didn't have to use a can and if he got some shoes he could have been a great player, especially when he grew older.

Suddenly the boy realized he had left the wall and was standing near the boys playing. They glanced at him and then continued. They were very noisy, shouting and screaming all at the same time, both games in progress. Along the sidelines stood sisters jiggling babies on the side of their hips, watching unemotionally. A few women were sitting picking the rocks out of the rice for the noon meal. It was only about ten thirty; they still had plenty of time until one o'clock.

Several pitiful dogs lay near the women in the shade, covered with flies and mosquitoes. Their ears were almost completely gone, eaten by flies. Even across the street the boy could see the black clumps of ticks in the ear stumps. One dog's tail moved slowly in the breeze. He still had half of one ear. All the dogs here were pitiful, the boy thought sadly.

The boy watched the kids kicking the can around. The good kid's left big toe is bleeding and there is no toenail. His dark skin is dusty and stiff and hard like dried leather. The shorts he wears were once a shirt, long, long ago. They are colored dark, like the deep brown left in the bottom of the cup of hot chocolate you finish. The rest of the boy is tamer, less stiff, less hard.

His stomach is lean and trim, something Westerners envy. His back is stiffer, and so are the backs of his shoulders and arms. His elbows are calloused and his hands are black with dirt. There is dust all over him. His hair is typical, round and tightly curled, and very black. His nose is thick and his teeth are pure white in comparison to the pinkish gums and lips. His smile is thick and wide and honest, and when you look into his eyes they are friendly and true, and curious.

The boy is startled to realize the soccer player is looking at him. He glances to the ground and kicks the sand with his shoe. The other boy does not change his gaze. He smiles and leaves the game. Ques-ce-que tu fait? he asks. Rien, the boy answers gruffly, also smiling. The player asks if he wants to play and the boy answers yes.

They join the game and the boy finds he has made a friend. He is not very good, but his friend passes him the can anyway. He kicks at it but the can is dented and smaller than the ball he is used to. He misses it completely. The other children keep right on playing, a few smiling, but none laughing. The boy stands bewildered, embarrassed.

Suddenly the can is passed to him again. It is his chance. He must do good, he thought. Someone else might of thought that he was playing so hard to not disappoint his race, but no such thought passed through his child mind as he played with his friends. His kick this time connected, though it went wild. A shock of pain when through his foot. The can had struck the top toe part of the shoe where only a thin cloth separated his toe from heavy metal. The others played on, never even noticing his agony. The boy tried to swallow the pain, pretend it wasn't there. He wasn't to be shown up by his peers.

He set his foot down gingerly, and limped on, at the same time idly wondering why a toe injury would affect his walk. Back in the game again, he was instantly made a part. While he didn't have the ball, the others affected an air that they were conscious of his presence. He was given the ball often, not always, but when everyone else had approximately equal chance to shoot a goal it was passed to him. Once he was able to rob the can from another player, and though he missed the goal he was instantly afraid of anger by the other player. But the other boy just laughed and smiled, and shouted, Je t'era! Je t'era! Tu vera! The words rhymed and rang in the boys ears. "I will get you, you'll see!" Right. We'll see. And the boy's eyes grinned and his body grimaced and he was off after the tin can.

The play continued. The boy fell down and skinned his elbow; tore holes in both knees of his pants; slipped in the sewer and soaked his left leg and shoe; and dirtied his shirt. But he was never down for more than a second, leaping back up to join the game. Finally everyone stopped for a rest.

The boy and his friend sat on the curb in the sand and panted. You're pretty good, they said to each other and smiled and laughed. The one filled his hand with sand and let it trickle through, like an hourglass, commented the other, and made a design on the asphalt with the falling sand. It was of looping and swirling lines, and didn't make any sense to the other. He picked up a dried stick and drew in the sand. His was firm and straight and proper, with angles and even curves. The other looked at it and couldn't make it out. They laughed and erased the sketches, and stretched out their legs.

Suddenly the boy realized how hot he was. He was perspiring and his clothes were filthy. For a second his thoughts went to his mother, and then he forgot everything. He forgot about the game. He forgot about the heat. He forgot about his cuts and scratches. He forgot about his torn clothes. He forgot about his mother.

He turned to his friend. C'est t'un singe? The other boy nodded. Yes, it was a monkey. It was their monkey. Would he like to meet it? The boy nodded.

The monkey was over near the wall across the street, over near the mothers and sisters, but far enough to be away from the food. It was leashed by a rope around its waist to a stake. The rope hanging about its stomach made the monkey seem to be bent over, a tiny old man with fine white and tan hair. Now it was standing on the stake, running its teeth along its wrists, nibbling each arm alternately.

The boy stepped over closer. He had seen monkeys wild and in the zoo, but his mother had never let him touch one. Could he pet it? The other boy shrugged. If you want, it's just a monkey.

The boy stepped closer, into the range of the rope. The monkey paused his nibbling. His tiny hands moved down in a quick, lightning, unalarming gesture. After he had moved the boy realized he should have been alarmed by such a sudden movement, but there hadn't been time for surprise. And after the fact, it was too late.

The monkey turned his head to the side and stared quizzically at the boy, his intelligent eyes darting all over the boy's face, soaking in every detail. His nose was sniffing, though the action was so slight the boy couldn't tell. His tail which was held poised behind him in semi-alarm suddenly switched down. The boy lifted a hand. The monkey went into an instant furious tirade. He jumped up and down and chattered and screeched so loudly it hurt the boys ears and eyes. His arms pumped up and down as though he were trying to fly.

Again it was so sudden the boy didn't have time for alarm. He instinctively moved back a pace, but his normal impulse to run didn't have time to act. The other children didn't move. It was then he realized the others had all gathered to watch him and the monkey. He felt strangely that this was a test of some sort, and he'd better do the right thing. But the people smiled encouragingly and his friend grinned. You need to move closer, the boy said.

The boy's eyes filled with alarm. The monkey was still furiously leaping and screeching, his mouth wide with those tiny needle-tipped, razor-sharp teeth. The boy remembered his mother's warning about animals here. They were most likely infected and a bite would mean lots of shots, and the boy hated shots.

Yet he was supposed to move closer? He glanced at his friend for confirmation. Surely he meant move away? Move closer, the friend said smiling. A Westerner, seeing the other's doubt, would have explained the why, but that was not the friend's culture. His was based on trust. Move closer, he repeated, in the exact same tone and voice, no more or less encouragement. Just a simple "Move closer."

The boy stepped forward. He didn't know exactly why. But he did. A second step brought him a few feet from the stake. Instantly the monkey leapt onto the boy's head, gripping the boy's hair for support. The hair was slippery and straight and the monkey, used to tight curly hair, slipped slightly and used the boy's right eye socket for a toehold to allow him to mount.

The boy stood frozen. A moment before he had stepped forward and now suddenly there was a monkey on his head. His first reaction was to scream and try to throw the monkey off, hoping not to get bitten. But again the monkey's action was too rapid for reaction. The boy stood frozen, his eyes tightly closed remembering that monkeys attacked the eyes first, no, that was vultures. Everything the boy had been told about Senegal flashed through his mind in a second, mixing and blending together.

During that eternal second, every sense came alive. The boy could feel every move the monkey made as though it were slow motion. He could feel his heart beat slowly and his pulse race through his arteries and veins, rush by rush. He could feel the sun on his burning back and every cut and scratch sting with salty agony. He could feel the ache in his back from staying bent over for so long after the monkey jumped on him. And then suddenly it was over.

As though released to think and move again, the boy and the people began to breath. The monkey was sitting contentedly on the boy's head, his left hand grasping hair and his right fingering the scalp for tiny bugs and lice and insects. Every now and then the monkey would pop something in his mouth and gnaw contentedly.

The boy rolled his eyes upward to his head in effort to see what the monkey was doing. After that first stage of panic his body was filled with adrenalin, and he could feel excitement within him. The monkey's long brown tail hung down in the boy's face and silently twitched with a mind of its own. He could smell the sweet odor of the hair of the monkey, and his mind ignored the odor of the beast itself, the same way he had ignored the stink of the sewer when he had fallen in it.

The boy placed a hand up on the side of the monkey and patted it and then scratched it. The monkey ignored the pat but arched his back with pleasure for the scratching, though his search for creatures in the hair did not cease.

The boy slowly began to smile, and continued to scratch the monkey. "Il m'aim!" he told his friend. Yes, he likes you, answered the boy.

Very carefully the monkey checked every stand of hair on the boy's head. Lifting it cautiously and peeking underneath. The boy reached his hand higher to scratch the monkey's neck. His fingers could feel the wiry strength in that tiny neck.

The boy turned to his friend. "Comment--" He was cut off by a horrible screech. It sounded like someone was being murdered.

The boy whipped quickly around.

The monkey lost his balance and frantically grabbed at the hand for support. It clutched the boy's wrist and in anger lightly nipped the boy's finger with its razor teeth.

The boy yelped and dropped the monkey, who scampered up its post. Only then did the boy see his mother, fearsome in her fury, bearing down on them. Young African boys were scattering like spilled marbles, even the boy's new friend, after an apologetic look ran off.

The woman was there. Her voice was an octave higher than normal, and about four times as loud. Ranting and raving, she pulled her son to her by his hair, clutching him to her side in a symbolic gesture of love and compassion. What did they do to you mon petit? she asked frantically.

Rien, maman, the boy answered calmly.

Nothing? What was that on your head? They must have done something! Look at you! Look at your clothes! The boy looked down at himself and was shocked at how dirty he was. How long had it been since he had been left in the car? It seemed like years.

They did nothing, mother, the boy said quietly. I played football, that's all.

The mother heard nothing. Her whole world was now filled with a giant monstrous hairy creature resembling a gorilla. What's that? she froze, pointing at the monkey, now cautiously mounting his post.

It's my friend's pet monkey, said the boy proudly. He cleaned my hair.

You had that filthy creature on your head? The woman shuddered and began to drag the boy away. Let's leave before they come back. They might hurt you next time. Black devils!

The boy suddenly stopped, forcing the woman to come to a halt. Maman, they did not do anything. I told you, I played football with them. They didn't do anything.

Nonsense, boy. They tore your clothes.

I tore my clothes. Playing.

The woman began to walk again. I shall have to inform the police of this incident. Savages attacking my son and feeding him to wild animals. What's next?

The boy shook his head sadly. It was no use. She couldn't understand. She wouldn't understand. He looked back behind him and saw the faces of dozen of black children watching him from behind walls and doors. He waved goodbye and was pushed into the car and the door slammed shut.

Mother doesn't understand, he thought. But I do.

He quietly sucked on his bitten finger. It was of no consequence.

Up front the woman continued to mumble to herself. It was of no consequence.


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