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The Monkey and the Tail

Black and white photograph of monkeys by Claire Maxwell, from the series Zoo
  • By Amie Barrodale
  • Issue 8
  • Fable

He was a well-known monkey. On two occasions, he had climbed the post to which his rope was tied, grasped it with hands and feet, and shaken it wildly. It was said he could understand simple questions, if spoken slowly, loudly and clearly, and it was perhaps by some superstitious mistake, to which our people are prone, or perhaps by some magic, that it came to be understood that the well-known monkey never lied.

And so people came to him to ask questions. They asked the monkey simple questions about their lives, and what was going to happen, and what was the meaning of it all. It was believed that when the monkey nodded his head, he meant to indicate “yes,” and when he shook his head from side to side, his answer was “no,” and for a long time the monkey’s owner, a German, made a lot of money offering the monkey’s services in this way, and was able to provide for his family. But you can’t say, as many did, that he took advantage of the well-known monkey, because the monkey had his own room in a derelict mansion on the outside of town, and I heard (but do not believe) that it was the monkey who prevented it from burning down one summer, when, during a massive renovation—but I have gotten off the subject.

Life was not easy for the well-known monkey. He did not understand English at all. He had a vague understanding that something was expected of him, and he understood that his two gestures—the nodding and shaking of the monkey- top—were in some way important, but he didn’t have any monkeys to talk to, to explain it to him, and so he spoke to his tail.

“The German and his daughters went to the petting zoo, and I stayed home because I am so grumpy, but now I feel lonely,” he said. “I am confused by my surroundings. I feel like I am important in some way, sometimes, and other times, I feel like I am not important at all. I wish I were dead. Other times I feel so happy. I feel sometimes like I might be a god, or a servant to a god. I am OK, but I am not good. I am confused. I cannot attune myself to signs. I don’t know what they are. I don’t have any friends. I feel sad. Everything I do is a mistake.”

His tail was quiet. His tail was a good listener.

“It's not the despair kind of depression,” the monkey said. “Just loneliness and confusion about the monkey-top thing, wishing someone would instruct me how to feel. Also I get jealous of the daughters.”

His tail didn’t respond. Sometimes he suspected that his tail didn’t listen at all. Sometimes he suspected that his tail was not wise and thoughtful, but just awfully stupid and without a thought in its top area. But that would be too awful. The monkey was quiet for a while. He picked up the book that his owner had left him and shook it by the corner. He thought, “It’s not so bad here.”

Amie Barrodale's first short-story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, is forthcoming from FSG.

Photo © Claire Maxwell, from the series Zoo