It was robbed in broad daylight by a monkey. I suppose, given the violent nature of the crime, I should say I was “mugged”. This was in Ubud in Bali, an otherwise peaceful place where Western thirty-somethings go to reinvent themselves through meditation retreats and raw cuisine. After having my chakras realigned in the morning, I cycled to Monkey Forest, the town’s main tourist attraction, to distract myself from that hollow feeling that sometimes overcomes me when travelling alone. The forest was choc-a-bloc with families and couples posing for pictures. A large group had spread out across the path, and I must have wandered into the frame, because after taking the photo, the old man holding the camera grimaced at me and said to his family, “We gotta go again, guys. Okay, Cheeeeeeeeee...”
I did not have a camera. What I had stopped liking about them is that they took me out of the moment and into an imagined future where I was showing a slideshow of my rich life to a friend. “Look!” I would say to Clarence, “Look at the monkeys I’ve seen!” Clarence would nod politely, but would not enjoy seeing the photographs, because unlike me he has never seen a monkey outside of the zoo. And he and I would both know then that at least in the monkey stakes, I was beating Clarence at life.
And so, letting a roll of Kodak Moments pass me by, I sat on a low wall opposite a copse of trees watching a tiny monkey who resembled Adam Horowitz from the Beastie Boys, leap from tree to tree. All the while, in my shirt pocket I carried a pencil and a few scraps of paper to write or draw on, because although I had given up on cameras, my memory still needed a crutch.
Before long, I noticed another motionless figure. A few feet to my left sat a monkey — middle-aged and with a sullen disposition often seen in the faces of old men from the west of Ireland. As I was imagining what he would look like in Wellington boots and a flat cap, he looked my way. I nodded in his direction, as if to say, “Well. Grand day for it.”
He responded well to this and made his way over on all fours. He sat down beside me, and we passed the time watching the Adam Horowitz monkey fall from the branches of saplings. Although he hadn’t the wherewithal to say it, his expression showed a dim regard for the exuberance of youth. And somewhere in there, too, he seemed to share my pangs of jealousy for having lost such vitality.
Two tourists holding bulky cameras filed by — a couple perhaps. They looked surprised to see the monkey and I sitting together like that, and must have figured me for a modern-day Doctor Dolittle. I congratulated myself for my “present moment” approach to life. Just then, the monkey clambered on to my lap, and the tourists’ looks of curious admiration shifted to reverence. “Who is this man who can commune so with the beasts? What divine providence hath bestowed upon him such gifts?” their raised eyebrows seemed to say, somewhat grandiosely.
I looked down at the monkey — I decided then and there to name him Karl — and Karl gazed back up at me. Our eyes, as they say in romance novels, “locked”, and this pregnant moment stretched out towards the hem of infinity. His entreating eyes, previously devoid of passion, now sparkled with humanity as if he was trying to communicate something... urgent. I read somewhere that scientists made a schematic of the monkey’s eye using Scheimpflug photography, but for all their empirical probing, their results could not equal the insight I gained from simply staring into Karl’s eyes. Here is what I saw: Karl’s political will; his quest for an authentic connection, not just with me, but with all of human society. He wanted social integration between monkeys and humans. He wanted white tablecloths, and tweed jackets, and a decent razor, and Seinfeld marathons, and a vote. And he wanted me to help him achieve it.
“I understand,” I whispered.
Tug of War
Karl, still meeting my stare, reached his hands up towards me, and for a second I thought he wanted to French kiss me. Another, more likely scenario, was that he wanted to embrace me as a gesture of solidarity between our species. Slightly more remote, but nonetheless my most hoped for prediction, was that he would touch my temples and we would mind-meld. Instead, what actually happened is that with one hand pressed against my chest to steady himself, he dipped his other hand into my shirt pocket and lifted my pencil. Instinctively, I grabbed it with my left hand. Karl clutched it now with both.
Although surely I am stronger than Karl, he has perfectly formed fingers which closed so neatly about the pencil that during the three-second tug-of-war that followed I found myself hopelessly bested. Karl, of course, lives to play tug-of-war, and feels zero compunction to play fair. What decided the contest in his favour was him sinking his teeth into my thumb. I screamed, released the pencil and stood up, sending Karl to the ground. He landed on his feet and hissed at me.
Some tourists approached: a mother and her two children. The mother, seeing Karl armed with the pencil and baring his teeth, shook her head and said: “That monkey shouldn’t have been given a pencil.” She eyed me coldly.
“Kar—he stole it from me,” I said, but this did nothing to undo her wary view of me, and she walked on with a quickening pace, shielding her children’s heads with cupped hands.
Heart-scalded with embarrassment, I turned around to see Karl eating the pencil. He gnawed at it thoughtfully at first, his head tilted to one side, as if awaiting a familiar burst of flavour. Then, pouring an expression of considerable disapproval in my direction, he began to spit out shards of graphite.
That Karl was clearly not enjoying the pencil as food was of little consolation to me, nor did it stop him from continuing to eat it. It occurred to me that although the Infinite Monkeys Theorem — whether or not they would produce the works of Shakespeare if given typewriters — remained unanswered, I could state categorically that Karl would produce nothing of artistic merit if given a pencil. Had his approach not been so myopic, he might have returned to his tribe with it and distinguished himself as a creator of 2D forms, amounting to a wizard or some such in the monkey hierarchy.
But that was not to be. And so while he ate my pencil, I sought out the first-aid clinic to dress my monkey bite. Afterwards, on my way out of the forest, I encountered the mother with her two children again. They were gathered around the mother’s camera, scrolling through the day’s photographs, to see where they had been, I suppose. They all looked up as I passed, and the daughter, not much taller than Karl, but with considerably less hair, pointed at me and said, “Don’t feed the monkeys, mister!”
Dara O Foghlu is an Irish-born writer living in Hanoi