The Monkey

Mary E. Wilkins

From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)

The monkey lived in his little den under the counter at the Bird-Fancier's. He was the only monkey there. It was a somewhat gloomy little shop, and the Monkey lived so far towards the back of it that he was seldom seen. Even the children did not often spy him out, and the most of their attention was concentrated upon the canaries, the parrots, the Angora cats, the white mice, and the rabbits. The canaries were more in evidence than the other inhabitants. The rabbits, of course, had nothing to say, and neither had the white mice. The parrots were either too sulky or desired exclusive stages for the exercise of their talents to say much. As for the Angora cats, they seemed cowed, possibly by their helplessness in the presence of such numbers of their natural prey. But the canaries were indomitable. Their wooden cages were small for their feathered bodies, but no bars could hold their songs, which floated in illimitable freedom forth into the city street. The Monkey seldom raised his voice at all. When he did, it had a curious effect. As a rule, people looked everywhere except at him for the source of it. It had a strange, far-off quality, perhaps from its natural assimilation with such widely different scenes. Of a right it belonged to the night chorus of a tropical jungle, and was a stray note from it, as out of place as anything could well be in this nearness to commonplaceness and civilization.

It was very dark in the Monkey's den. He peered out at every new sound, at every new step and voice, with his two yellow circles of eyes, which were bright with a curious blank brightness; they seemed not to have the recognition of intelligence until the object was within a certain distance.

The Monkey stayed for the greater part of his time in a swing fixed in the middle of his cage. He crouched thereon, folding his arms around the wires by which it was suspended. He crossed his hands upon his breast, and leaned his head forward in an attitude of contemplation. He might have been half asleep, and he might have been sunken in a reverie. He looked like an epitome of an Eastern sage. He might have been on the home-stretch towards Nirvana with that long wrinkle of thought over his closed eyes, and that inscrutable, unsmiling width of mouth, and unquestioning bend of back.

The Bird-Fancier was something of a thinker, and formed his own deductions from what he saw. From living so long with these little creatures below the staff, which never met his questions with intelligible answers, he had come to theorize. He was an old man and not acquainted with books. He had his own conception concerning the Monkey and the rest, unwritten, but not unspoken to a choice few.

One to whom he divulged his theories was his old wife, who lived with him in the little tenement over the shop; one was an old woman cousin of hers, who lived with them and worked for her board; and one was the Boy. Not one of the three had the least understanding of anything which he said. If it was in the daytime, the wife and the old cousin went on with their work of cleaning the bird-cages, and the Boy stood before the Monkey's cage. If it was in the evening, the old cousin knitted, for she was never idle, and the old wife dozed in her chair, and the Boy was of course not there, as he only stopped in the shop on his way to and from school. The Bird-Fancier had no more audience than if he had been himself an inhabitant of some distant jungle, and removed by force to a cage of civilization; but that did not disturb him at all. A true theorizer needs no sympathy unless he has an over-weening conceit, and the Bird-Fancier was modest. He talked on, and never knew that he had no intelligent listeners. “Tell ye what it is,” he would say, leaning back in his chair, with his eyes fixed as upon some far-off teacher, “I have thought it all out. It's simple enough when you know. You've all seen how berries and flowers run out. My brother Solomon, he had a beautiful strawberry-bed, berries as big as ducks' eggs, and the next year they had run out, not much bigger than pease. And my brother Solomon he had an asparagus-bed served him the same way; and you all know how pansies run out, till they get back to violets. All those little things in the shop are men and women run out. They ain't the beginning, as I have heard some say they believed, but they are the end. When a man dies, suppose he hasn't lived just the best kind of a life, but suppose he hasn't been wicked, not enough to be burned alive in fire and brimstone to all eternity, but suppose he ain't fitted to go into a higher sphere, suppose he wouldn't be happy there, let alone anything else; suppose he's just sort of no-account and little, not bad enough for hell, but not great enough for heaven, but there he is, and he's got to be somewhere. Well, souls that don't go straight to heaven or hell have got to go again into bodies; there ain't any keeping of them apart; might as well try to keep the three things that go to make up air apart. Into bodies those little souls have got to go, but they've got so much smaller through living no-account lives that they won't fit human bodies, so into the cats, and the birds, and the monkeys, and all the rest they go. They are folks run out. They are the end, or they will be when they finally die out, and all the animal races do. Take that Monkey. Just look at him. He's thousands of years old. He is just as likely as not one of the Bible Pharaohs run out. See him! When he looks up because he hears a noise, that noise brings back things to that Monkey that date from the foundation of the earth. There's what's left of something more'n you and I have ever known in that little head of his. Look at the way he uses his little hands! How did he learn to do that? I tell ye there is the key to Genesis and Revelation in that little Monkey, if anybody knew how to use it.”

Perhaps because the Bird-Fancier regarded the Monkey in such philosophical fashion he did not care for him as a pet, but in fact he made pets of none of the little creatures in his shop. He regarded them all simply from a philosophical and financial point of view. He kept them well fed and clean, and sold them with alacrity whenever he was able. Then he forgot all about them. As for the old wife and the cousin, they were on a higher range of stupidity than the animals, and wondered at the other women who came into the shop and talked to the birds and cats as if they were children. They themselves would never have talked in such fashion to children.

So it happened that the Monkey had no real friend except the Boy. The Boy loved him with devotion, and he proved it. He saved every bit of his scanty pocket-money to buy delicacies for the Monkey — fruit and loaf-sugar and peanuts. He was very fond of sweets himself, and also of fruit, but he seldom tasted any except when the Monkey refused it. Then he ate it, and found it sweet with the added sweet of generosity.

The Boy was a student at the high-school, and not considered a promising one. In fact, he lagged behind all his classes, and had entered the school only after repeated trials. He was a saturnine boy, with a face not unlike the Monkey's own, with a curiously narrow height of forehead, and long upper lip, and bright brown eyes. He had outgrown his clothes, and his trousers and jacket sleeves were too short, and he moved with hitches of discomfort because of their tightness. He came of a decent family, to whom the unnecessary spending of money was an unwritten prohibitory commandment. The father was a clerk on a small salary; there were two daughters, employed in stores. The Boy had no mates among his companions at school. He was as stupid at sports as at lessons, and his saturninity was against him.

The Boy's only pleasures and recreations were his calls upon the Monkey at the Bird-Fancier's shop. He stopped on his way to and from school, and he usually secured a few minutes at the noon intermission. He would pass by the canaries and the parrots and the rabbits, and he had a deeply rooted aversion for the Angora cats. Straight to the Monkey's little den he would go, crouch down before it, and begin a curious, silent, mouthing motion of his face. Then the Monkey would raise himself alertly, dart to the side of his cage nearest the Boy, and respond with an exactly similar motion. Now and then he would reach out one little hairy hand and it would cling around the Boy's fingers like a baby's, and all the time the two kept up that silent, mouthing communication, which meant Heaven alone knew what to the Monkey or the Boy. The Boy was the only one whom the Monkey ever noticed in such wise. No matter what were the blandishments of any other visitor, he would do no more than sit upon his swing, rub his hands aimlessly, and stare over the visitor's shoulder, as if he saw his shadow instead of his personality. But for the Boy he always made that lithe dart to the side of his cage, and began that silent mouthing. The Boy and the Monkey looked ridiculously alike at those times, and the Bird-Fancier used to eye them with shrewdness, but no mirth. Sometimes he told his nodding old wife and her industrious cousin in the evening that he believed that the Boy was kind of running out and proving his theory. Once he asked the Boy why he did not buy the Monkey; but the price was fifteen dollars, and the Boy could as soon have purchased an elephant.

One day the Boy brought a little looking-glass and fastened it to the side of the Monkey's cage. Some one had told him that monkeys were very cunning with looking-glasses; but the result was somewhat pathetic, and strengthened the Bird-Fancier in his theory. “He remembers the time when there was something at the back of the looking-glass, or he wouldn't act the way he does,” he told his nodding wife and her illustrious cousin. The Monkey was wont to make a sudden dart at his reflection in the looking-glass, and stretch out both poor little arms past it in a piteous, futile effort of embrace. Then he would retreat forlornly to his perch. Sometimes the Boy got on the other side of the glass and grasped the little outreaching hands, and that seemed to satisfy the Monkey to a certain extent.

Towards night the Monkey became thoroughly alert. Life tingled in every nerve and muscle of his little hairy body. He was silent as ever, but he swung himself from end to end of his cage with curious doublings and undoublings. Doubled, he looked like a little man; undoubled, there was a sudden revelation of a beast. He clung to the wires; he revealed his chest, which was a beautiful blue color; the frown over his yellow eyes increased; he reached out for everything near his cage. If by any chance he could catch hold of anything, he was rejoiced.

He was never let out of his cage. He was a gentle monkey, but his owner had a perfect faith in his desire for mischief.

There was one superb black and white Angora cat which had the liberty of the shop and was not confined in a cage, and he used sometimes, though at a wary distance, to pass the Monkey's cell. Then the Monkey broke silence. He chattered with rage, he reached out a wiry little claw to incredible distances. Once he tweaked the cat's ear, and it fled, spitting. “That Monkey would kill the Cat if he got loose,” said the Bird-Fancier, and the Monkey would indeed have been rejoiced to kill the Cat. He would also have been rejoiced to kill some of the other inhabitants of the shop, though not so much because he hated them as because of the longing for destruction which was in his blood. It was hard for a thing used to the wild liberty of the jungle to be kept in a little den under the counter of a city shop. In the jungle he could at least have torn leaves to shreds, he could have swung from bough to bough, festooning himself in wonderful leaping curves of life, he could have killed those things which were weaker than himself, or have fled chattering with futile rage before those which were stronger, or he could have died in unequal combat. It would have been something to have had the liberty of death. The deadly monotony of his life wrought up the gentle little creature to the point of madness when night came on. He was, as it were, choking for liberty. He glared forth at the canaries and the rabbits, he showed all his teeth at the Bird-Fancier when the old man gave him the banana which was his nightly meal, and clutched it through the wires with vicious greed. Then he would tear off the rind, and so doing catch a glimpse of the monkey in the looking-glass, and drop his supper, and spring for him, and reach out those pathetic little empty arms.

“He is the gentlest monkey I ever saw,” said the Bird-Fancier; “but for all that, I wouldn't let him loose in the shop.”

The Bird-Fancier had owned the Monkey about a year, when one night, through some oversight, the cage door was left unfastened, and the Monkey escaped. He worked at the catch for a long time, and at last it yielded, and he was free.

It was about two o'clock in the morning, and the full moonlight lay in the shop, and besides that was the white glare of electricity from across the street. It was so light that occasionally a canary thought it was day and woke and chirped, and the parrots stirred uneasily, and shrieked or laughed.

The Monkey slipped out of his cage, and the greatest joy which he had ever known was upon him. He was a vibration of liberty; not a nerve in his little body but thrilled with the utmost delight of life and freedom. He went about the shop with long lopes. He did not look so much like a little man as like a beast. The beautiful black and white Angora cat was sleeping peacefully on top of the white-mice cage, and the Monkey spied him, and made one leap for his back. Then he rode him furiously around the shop, winding his wiry arms in a strangling embrace around his neck, but the Cat escaped by a wild plunge through the window, and the Monkey slid off. He could have followed, but he had other things to attend to. He flew at a little golden ball of sleeping canary in his tiny cage, then at another, and another, then at the gold-fishes. The parrots he let alone, after he had shrewdly eyed their hooked beaks. He had thoughts of the rabbits which stood aloof in their cages with dilated pink eyes of terror, and supplicating hang of paws, and quivering nostrils, but they were as large as the Monkey, and he had no knowledge as to their powers of defence; besides, he could not easily get at them. But he loved to pull the gold-fishes out of their crystal bowls and watch them gasp on the floor, and he enjoyed the flutterings of the canary-birds.

It was quite a long time before the cousin up-stairs awoke. She woke first, because she was the lightest sleeper. Then she spoke to the Bird-Fancier, and told him that something was wrong in the shop, and all three hurried down, thinking it was fire. But it was only a little spark of liberty let loose to work its own will.

The Monkey had wrought considerable destruction; several canaries would never trill again, and a number of gold-fishes lay strewn about the floor. The Bird-Fancier whipped the Monkey back to his cage, and fastened the door, and the little animal caught sight of his reflection in the looking-glass and darted towards it with outstretched arms.

“That Monkey has destroyed more than he is worth,” the Bird-Fancier told his wife and her cousin. “There is no profit in keeping monkeys.”

The next morning he gave the Monkey his breakfast as usual, and said nothing by way of reproach, being alive to the absurd futility of it. But he looked at him, and the Monkey showed all his teeth, and clutched his little dish of bread and milk and flung it on the floor of his den.

When the Boy came in on his way to school the Bird-Fancier, contrary to his custom, waxed loquacious. He pointed to the bodies of the dead canaries and the gold-fishes. “See what your Monkey has done in the night,” he said.

The Boy looked soberly at the dead birds and the fishes, then at the man.

“He has killed more than he is worth,” said the Bird-Fancier.

Then the cousin, who was cleaning the cage of one of the dead canaries, piped up in a slender, shrill voice, not unlike a bird's: “Yes, only see! And if I hadn't woke just as I did, he would have killed the whole shopful. Better leave monkeys in their woods where they belong.”

The Boy looked from one to the other, but he said nothing. Then he went as usual to the Monkey's den, and the Monkey came to the side of it, and the two mouthed at each other silently with perfect understanding. When the Boy was leaving the shop the Bird-Fancier stopped him. He had been having a whispered consultation with his wife.

“See here,” he said; “if you want that Monkey, you can have him.” The Boy turned pale and stared at him. “I will put him in an old parrot-cage,” said the Bird-Fancier, “and you can stop and get him this noon.”

“For nothing?” gasped the Boy.

“Yes, for nothing,” replied the Bird-Fancier. “I am tired of keeping him. Monkeys ain't very salable.”

“For nothing?” repeated the Boy.

“Yes, you needn't pay a cent,” said the Bird-Fancier, looking at him curiously.

Such an expression of rapture came into the Boy's face that it was fairly glorified. It was broadened with smiles until it looked cherubic. His brown eyes were like stars.

“Thank you,” he stammered, for he was at that time of life when he was ashamed of saying thank you. Then he went out, and to school, and for the first time in months learned his lessons with no effort, and seemed to see truths clearly, and not through a fog. He had a great happiness to live up to, and for some minds happiness is the only dispeller of fogs; the Boy's was of that sort.

After school he ran all the way home to make sure that the Monkey would be welcome, and that his mother would not refuse him shelter, then he went without his dinner to fetch him.

When the Boy arrived at the Bird-Fancier's the Monkey was all ready to depart, ensconced in the old parrot-cage. The Boy went out of the store, dragged to one side with the weight of his precious burden, and for the first time in his life the ecstasy of possession was upon him. He had never fairly known that he was alive until he had come into the ownership of this tiny life of love.

The Bird-Fancier watched him going down the street, and turned to his wife, who was stroking the Angora cat, and the cousin, who was feeding a canary which had just arrived. The Boy, going down the street, had his face bent over the Monkey, and the two were mouthing to each other. “I am right, you may depend upon it,” he said. “There goes one monkey carrying another.”