Sometimes things come at you sideways.
One moment you’re sitting there and having an espresso, talking to a friend who’s visiting from Holland and your mind is in a European headspace (for lack of a better description). Rising politely, he pops to the loo, and on the way back is distracted by my wife coming back from a network meeting. They haven’t caught up yet, and by the time the whole shebang of catch up, coffee ordering, loo visits, catch up revision, and ‘check the tickets on the car’ is done … a small story has popped up, that ha
s absolutely nothing to do with any of it.
We are clever beings, us humans, but somehow seem to endlessly ensnare ourselves unwittingly in traps we never intended to place. Our cleverness, whilst being our strength, can also be our downfall. It is perhaps why a fool can be happy, a clever man miserable, and those who recognise the difference we come to call wise men or sages. Be careful of showing your skills, they could end up enslaving you.
This popped up in the short time I sat alone…it’s unedited, but was only ever meant as a quick jot of an idea.
For some reason my head took be back to Thailand some twenty years ago and rather than sitting around in a coffee shop in winter, I’m in 35 degrees heat, and someone has told me it’s the ‘cool and windy season’ …
Man and the Monkey
Deng woke early. Beneath her hut the copperhead snake slithered to her nest. Eyes closed, still as a mouse, listening to her movements, Deng heard her coil beneath the flimsy floor and settle in to sleep the day away. Mai was due back later. Hopeful he’d bring something for her, she’d even helped Mr Li, which she didn’t like doing. Mr Li watched her working all the time, never saying anything. Mr Li’s eyes made her uncomfortable; when he smoked his Chinese cigarettes he seemed to look dow
n on her, like she had a bad smell; made noises in the back of his throat too, and Deng couldn’t tell if Mr Li was laughing, or going to spit.
Sticky rice and papaya for breakfast, Deng checked the nearby trees and visible windows first; modestly sluicing herself behind the reed frame circling the back of their hut. The heat was already up; the animals about her becoming restive as it rose. Chickens fed, she left one of the roosters out from beneath his basket, opened the pig pen, and watched as the hungry piglets scattered in different directions to forage. A quietness whispered from the monkey cages. Tapping the cage with the smaller female, she pushed in a bit of papaya to her.
“Pu,” Deng whispered, “Pu … Pu.”
Soon know her name.
Quietly, taking it, blinking wide; her young intelligent eyes watched Deng’s every movement as she did so. Mumbling reassuringly and gently, as she pushed another piece of fruit through, Deng slowly worked on building her trust and a bond. Ten days now; already her eyes followed Deng everywhere once she came into view. The older male in the adjoining cage, angled away from her, watched warily through slitted eyes. Deng ignored him. Not about to waste fruit on him again; Mai could dump him back in the jungle later. No use. Nobody ate bushmeat anymore. It made you mad. Like hillmen.
The four European girls got out of bed around nine. Leaving the island today, after three days, they’d been to the waterfall, the big statue of Buddha, and the cave where birds made nests of spit. Three or four more would arrive before the day was out. Sometimes a boy or man came to stay too. Always three days they stayed at Mr Li’s, and always only visited the three things on the island from the book they carried. Mai drove them sometimes, if he finished in the fields early, or Paap came with his van, from the bottom of the hill near the village.
Once when it was quiet, and there were no tourists staying at Mr Li’s, Deng went with Mai to see the waterfall. In the jungle, they parked his bike a long way away, and followed a little path. The birds and insects were noisier than in the village, and monkeys came to watch them as they made their way through. Hot and steamy, when they got to the waterfall, Mai explained that the tourists sometimes swam without clothes to cool off, after which they would eat the food that Deng prepared. Sitting there for a little while afterwards, they always took photos of each other with their phones. After, Mai took them back to Mr Li’s where, tired, they would often have a sleep, before eating again. Later, they would visit the bar near the beach, where other tourists drank beer and listened to loud music. To bed late, they always got up when the morning was nearly over. Mai took Deng home after they cooled their feet in the water, but first made a small detour to the statue. Lots of tourists taking photos, and eating food in the cafés nearby, Mai pointed out which of the cafés Mr Li owned, after which he drove the long way around the island to get home. The bird caves were on the way back, but he didn’t drive there to show Deng. It was just bird spit, and Mr Li didn’t have any businesses there. Back at Mr Li’s, Deng was surprised that she didn’t feel hungry or sleepy.
At eleven, Mai arrived carrying two bags of groceries from the mainland, and three strips of soft sugar candy for Deng hidden in his shirt. A new machete too, and a collar for Pu and the male. Sitting in the doorway, Deng sucked the long yellow strip telling Mai of her days without him. Laughing about Mr Li, he explained again that he was partially blind; reminding Deng he’d already told her that. Deng hadn’t remembered, her memory wasn’t very reliable, so she laughed too, and tried not to be afraid of Mr Li so much. He paid Mai’s wages.
Eating some of the sticky rice, when he’d had his fill, Mai turned back to Deng.
“Only one good.” Deng replied, telling him how smart little Pu was. Females were always more intelligent she teased. Papaya was her favourite fruit too.
Asking after the male, Deng shook her head. Too stupid and too stubborn, Deng reported. Too old and angry also. They’d never get on. Didn’t like Pu either. To Deng’s surprise, Mai suggested putting her to work. Not properly, but he had to be ready to do something for the morning, even if he only showed up training her with the others. Since Hima fell, and died, they hadn’t done a proper day’s work. Deng nodded her understanding.
At the cages, Deng cooed her name and watched little Pu react. A piece of papaya held, as she opened the cage, Pu sat still watching it before coming out sideways, and taking it gently.
“Clever, and gentle too huh?” Mai agreed, attaching the chain to her neck-collar, to check Deng’s progress with her training, and to accustomise her to it.
Too dumb and too stubborn to allow himself to be chained, and be put to work collecting coconuts, Mai ignored the male. One or two were always too dumb.
He’d throw him back in the jungle later.