I’m pretty knocked out from a big week at work, and I’ve been fighting off a tension-induced migraine all weekend. Ergo, I have no scintillating or witty takes on any topics today. (“But what makes that different from any other day?” you may justifiably ask, but please don't.) Since I’m drawing a complete blogging blank here, I figured I’d toss up one of my short stories that was published last year in Big Pulp’s anthology, “Apeshit!” I hope you enjoy it!
The Gibbon Remedy
They said these gibbons were special, just for the girls, and to Sweeny this made sense. Girls and monkeys went natural together. The gibbons were going help them feel better about the war, the teacher said.
“They are called ‘therapy monkeys’ and they are very costly to train,” Sweeny explained to her mother, who was having her day in bed. Sweeny had rehearsed this on her way home. It made her feel knowledgeable. “Monkeys have diseases in their spit,” her mother said. “Stay back from the cages.” She signed the permission slip, turned to the wall, and covered her head with the quilt. “Now be an angel and bring mommy an egg-and-toast.”
It was hard for Sweeny to sleep, thinking about the gibbons. The encyclopedias had almost all been used for fire, but they still had F-G. She read that gibbons are frugivorous, diurnal and arboreal. She repeated these words in a whisper: frugivorous, diurnal and arboreal. A mystery. The libraries were long-gone and now Sweeny had to find mysteries wherever they presented themselves: A glass tube of vanilla lip gloss skittering down an alley, two long wrinkled hands cupping a lighter, a blue foam roller stuck in a raspberry bush. But the monkeys would have real mysteries; eye mysteries. Gibbons, she read, went together each morning to the edge of the woods and sang to let everyone know which part of it was theirs.
Sweeny put the book down and pulled the rags out of the hole in the floor to see if it had gotten black-dark outside yet. The hole was left over from the war, but Sweeny couldn’t remember if had been there years or only months. It was black-dark, and Sweeny smelled the comforting burn of pesticide. Through the hole, she sang a high, meek song about their frailty, about her mother’s days in bed and how little they could ask for nowadays. She crammed the rags back in and fell asleep with F-G open on her stomach, the gibbons hugging her ribs.
They were taken to the monkeys in a dirty mint-green bus with ripped-up seats. Sweeny sat next to Fionna, who wore boy’s plaid shirts and used to chew gum all of the time back when you could get it anywhere. Sweeny had always admired Fionna’s easy-going ways. “What if a gibbon tried to kiss you?” Sweeny asked Fionna. “If he took you in his big fat arms and pushed you against the cage bars and tried to kiss you?” Fionna yawned. “I’d scream,” she said.
They all had to get out of the bus and be counted and put T-shirts on over their clothes before going into the low hut that held the monkeys. The T-shirts were green and yellow and read “Go, Go Gibbons! Experience for Youth.” Sweeny was proud of hers. A full-hipped young woman in glasses and a baseball hat came out from the hut and waved at them. “Welcome!” she shouted. She said her name was Patty! She told them not to strike the monkeys, throw things at them, make noises, or mock them in any way. She told them to keep their hands to themselves and be respectful of the monkeys because they were shy, just as shy as people could sometimes be. She told them that these monkeys were specially trained to be loving towards children, but even they had their limits. She told them that they were not to wander off on their own and they were to do what their guides told them at all times. Sweeny listened impatiently to the woman’s preamble about their cutting-edge monkey therapy program, and finally found herself heading into the odoriferous hut. She looked around for the gibbons but at first there was just museum stuff, a boring man talking when you pushed a button, and a life-sized diorama of monkeys in a rain forest.
But they kept heading down some straw-covered stairs and Sweeny felt dizzy when she could actually hear the snorts and grunts of the gibbons. “Your gibbons,” said Patty, “have been hand-selected for you based on your personality type.” Sweeny didn’t recall telling anyone about her personality, but she figured maybe they watched of that sort of thing now because of the war. “We would like you to interact lovingly with your gibbon. To trust him or her. To explore the joy of sharing with them.”
Sweeny was assigned to Apartment 18, “Roland.” They unlatched the door to his pod and let her walk right in. Two smiling young people in polo shirts, a man and a woman, stood outside, clutching clipboards. The room was empty, but she could sense a lurking, musty presence nearby. She sat down in the thin straw on the floor and ducked her head demurely. Then she began to sing again, her weak, high song. She felt a brightness upon her; a rustle from above the platform, two black eyes. Then, a thick rubbery hand, pressing into her tiny bones. Sweeny was crying from fear now, but the hand stayed. She opened her eyes and looked at Roland. He pulled his lips back and patted her hand. He released her and ran to a wooden box in the center of the room, where he pulled out a blue spinning top and pushed it at her. Sweeny took the top and spun it hard. Roland shook and made hooting sounds as the top hummed and blurred across the floorboards. There was a clatter as the top sputtered to a stop on a soft spot in the wooden floor. Roland clapped and screeched.
Sweeny crawled over to the top, curled her fingers around the rotted wood, and pried it loose. A cold green rush of air filled her mouth. She glanced at the clipboard people, but they were looking down and writing something. She yanked again, and again, and peered down into a windy vacuum through a hole about the size of her nine-year-old head. She quickly grabbed some straw and the old wood and shoved it all back into place, then made the “come here” gesture to Roland, all while watching the clipboard people closely. Roland lumbered over to her and hunkered down. Sweeny pointed to the hole and put her finger over her lips in a “shhh”. Roland hugged himself tightly and sucked on his lips. Sweeney whispered to him and moved back to the center of the room.
“What else do you have to play with, Roland?” she asked loudly. The clipboard people smiled and made a notation. After they had played with a beach ball, an abacus, and a pop-up book, the clipboard people blew a whistle and Roland began dragging all of the toys back into the chest. Sweeny winked at him when she shook his hand goodbye. Afterwards the girls got rice cream and a free book mark at the gift shop.
That night, after her mother had fallen asleep to the radio, Sweeny took the rags out of the hole in the floor and leaned in. This time she sang of Roland the Guardian, the great monkey protector and God of all Guardians. She sang of his devotion and his suffering. She sang of his courage and selflessness. She sang of his cleverness with counting and his gracefulness with beach balls. She stuck her head far down the windy hole and howled for Roland, guiding him with her voice. She shone her penlight into the hole and winked it on and off. But Roland didn’t come, and her mother slept all of the next day, even when Sweeny got back from school.
Sweeny went out the stoop and sat in the cold, sour air, watching for a mint-green bus to take her back to the monkeys. But very few vehicles came down the street since the war, and Sweeny got hungry. She went inside and made egg sandwiches, but when she went to wake her mother, her mother didn’t move or open her eyes. Sweeny covered her back up and went to the living room and sat her on bedroll. She ate both of the sandwiches and fed the crumbs to a trio of ants.
The next morning Sweeny stayed home in bed with her mother, waiting for her to open her eyes. But throughout the day, her mother’s skin grew cooler and her eyes never opened. Sweeny knew that this was death, that this is what it did to a body. She took a clean rag from the basin in the bathroom and carefully washed her mother’s face with it. She brushed out her hair and covered her up to her chest with the quilt. They didn’t have a phone, so she wouldn’t be able to call anyone until she went to school. She would have to tell the teacher. Sweeny made a glass of powdered milk and sat next to the hole in the floor. She wanted to sing but she couldn’t open her throat even to drink the milk. She only wanted to sit as still and rigid as she could. She would not move again. No matter what, she would not sing, just sit. She would take only the number of breaths needed for bare survival. She would not allow thirst or hunger to sway her. She would let the mice scramble over her legs and wouldn’t move a muscle on her own behalf.
Sweeny woke up in the night, cold and uncovered. Her hair was wet and matted, and her eyes were crusty. She decided to try to scream. She sat up and opened her mouth, but she could not make noise. If she could not sing again, Roland would never come. She put her head into the hole in the floor and managed a weak whistle. The whistle gave her strength and she found herself able to make a small grunt, then another, then, finally, a long, resonant bellow. She screamed and screamed into the hole, until she began to frighten herself and stopped.
In the morning, she got on the bus for school. She had not taken her sink-bath or combed her hair or changed out of her clothes. She sat in the back alone and turned her head away from Fionna when she tried to sit next to her. At lunch, she told Mrs. Morgan about her mother. Mrs. Morgan took Sweeny to the sick room and there were phone calls. The other kids got to go to the gym to play for the afternoon. Someone brought Sweeny a cheese sandwich and a sliced tomato and hot chocolate. Mrs. Morgan was crying. When the hallways were clear, Sweeny opened the door to the sickroom and left the school. She left her book bag and ran and ran and ran, stopping only to vomit up the tomato and chocolate.
When she unlocked her apartment, her mother’s bed was empty. Sweeny made up the bed and went back to sit on her bedroll. She imagined Mrs. Morgan opening the door to the sickroom and gasping. Everyone asking where is Sweeny where is Sweeny oh where did Sweeny go. Sweeny thought it would be a good song: Oh where oh where did Sweeny go, well a-hunting with her monkey-oh, heydy-hiedy-hiedy-ho. Where oh where did Sweeny go, well she went a-swimming with her gibbon-oh. Sweeny began to sing. She felt gut-punched with a wild joy. She spun and cackled and did her mad-woman dance, a dance she only did alone in the night when they had a fire and there was thunder. When she began to cramp, she stopped and laid down, her ear on top of the rags on top of the hole in the floor. The sun moved across the ceiling then across the back wall, going sticky and thick then vanishing altogether. No one came for her, but they would. She would be adopted, or go to a Home. There would no gibbons because of their diseased spit. They wouldn’t have a hole in the floor or any mysteries.
In the night, her heart began to thud so heavily that it hurt her ears. Her heart tripped like heavy feet on a bad floor. Thunder sounded in her head but it was not weather-thunder, it was monkey-thunder, blood thunder, it was the song of the gibbons claiming their stake in the world, massing in hordes to sing their song of boundaries, of home. She thrust her hand into the hole in the floor and waited for Roland. When finally his clumsy, dry, familiar hand found hers, she held on.