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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
No one knew quite what to do when they found the blonde-haired monkey with the thin golden face that looked like a byzantine saint. Large eyes – positioned close together in a flat profile resembling that of a painted idol – and a serious mouth set it apart from any image of a monkey the townsfolk had seen before. Perhaps they were waiting for it to initiate a conversation, since it looked so knowing, so human. But it didn’t speak, just bobbed its head once in a mournful fashion and ran up the tree in the copse at the centre of the town square.
It was decided that first they would name it. But they only had grainy pictures in yellowing library books of byzantine art and so couldn’t decide which saint it most resembled. The man in the stocks said it should be called Bob, because he thought that would be the funniest name, profanities notwithstanding, but he was ignored because he was an attention hoarder and being ignored was part of his punishment.
A list of saints was made along with a brief summation of their attributes, but still no one could decide because they could not tell what the attributes of the monkey were. It mostly sat in the tree copse, silent, and ate anything they offered up with shaking hands (it had rather large teeth). People grew tired and grumpy of staying out in the heat of the square so it was determined that they would reconvene in a couple of day’s time to discuss the name of the monkey further.
But once they were back to their regular lives, excuses began to be made about the timing of the next meeting. Too early in the morning and it would clash with milking the herds and gathering the eggs, too late and the tradesmen would be falling asleep on their feet from weary days of work. Meanwhile, people had taken to using the well at the corner near the cafe instead of the one in the town square a stone’s throw from the monkey copse (as it was now becoming known).
Enough people still passed the copse, those brave enough to ignore the churn of unease at the base of their stomachs, to give a report of the monkey’s actions. It sat, they said, swung gently between branches, ate any food that was offered. Its large owl eyes followed you right across the square when you walked past. Occasionally it would roll them back into its head and make a chittering sound with a wide grin. But then people stopped visiting the town square at all, skirting the alleyways around it instead. It was the man who was back in the stocks again who told them that the monkey had gone.
When they sent the chimneysweeper up the branches of the sturdiest trees to check, he couldn’t find a trace of the monkey, not even a wisp of fur. This unsettled the townsfolk so much that they started going regularly to church; donating to charitable funds. The priest, perceptive and cunning as always, began a campaign for a new saint’s icon for the west alcove, where a forgotten family used to have their chapel. Soon enough, a painted saint, in the byzantine style, sat at right angles to the congregation. They felt its gaze upon them when they were reaching into pockets for sweets or nodding off behind a raised hymnbook. And, in turn, they experienced guilt for the nameless monkey that they had spurned.
The woodcarver chopped down the copse, once a source of much needed shade and a popular place for lovers to linger, and nailed the wood into a cross for the church. But still the monkey did not come back, the barman’s wife said one winter night. Voicing a desire that no one had dared to say yet. Then, when a sickness visited the elderly of the town, the woodcarver’s son (who was not quite as pious as his father) used the remainders of the copse to make a statue of the monkey, slightly larger than life, and secured it in the space where the trees once grew. The townsfolk approved wholeheartedly, but the priest did not.
The head teacher of the school announced that she had found the saint that the monkey had resembled most, and that it would no longer be nameless. But a name was useless to the townsfolk now. They contemplated the wooden cross in the church on Sundays, saint’s face in the corner of their eyes, and stopped to gaze upon the monkey statue when they passed through the town square. They turned their palms up towards the skies both times, lips tightly closed. They prayed.
Jane Healey is a British writer based in New York. She is currently studying for an MFA in Fiction at Brooklyn College.
*Tin House is now accepting flash fiction (under 1,000 words) for FLASH FRIDAYS. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org with FLASH FRIDAY as your subject line.