by Celeste Ng
It was about that time that a group of scientists headed out to the Amazon to study a newly discovered species of monkey.
The scientific community was tremendously excited over this new find. The monkeys were reported to exhibit "human behavior" and to be tremendously intelligent. So twenty specialists in biology, psychology, and zoology were chosen for an expedition into the heart of Brazil. They brought all the necessary equipment with them: safety matches, food, extra clothing, a Polaroid camera, tents, and carbine rifles (in case of emergency). And so they set out.
The first day went smoothly. The tents were duly erected around a small fire, and the equipment was piled into one. That evening the famous Dr. David Hassler wrote in his journal, "The animals are extremely intelligent—they use tools and exhibit other human behavior, including a primitive form of oral communication."
Dr. Jeanne Spitzer, a well-known zoologist, came to read over his shoulder.
"These animals are excellent mimics. When one of them saw me writing in my journal, it picked up a twig and copied my actions on the ground." She laughed flirtatiously.
"And so, the innermost thoughts of the famous Dr. Hassler—monkeys."
Hassler blushed. He had found, since the beginning of the expedition, that Jeanne Spitzer's blue eyes had a dazzling, tongue-tying effect on him, like the sun does if you stare at it too long. Instead of replying, he tossed the journal off his lap and lifted one of the carbine rifles.
Jeanne followed him with her eyes. "Are you a good shot?"
Without a word, Hassler shouldered the rifle, aimed, and fired. Two hundred yards away a sloth tumbled from a tree branch to the forest floor.
Jeanne watched, a little shocked, as Hassler picked his way through the undergrowth to claim his prize. Bearing it triumphantly, he posed for a quick snapshot before tossing the animal's carcass into the leaves.
Hassler could sense Jeanne's discomfort, but he shrugged it off. He was a psychologist, not a zoologist. After a few minutes, Jeanne came to sit beside him. Neither of them knew that bright, round eyes had been watching them from the trees.
And so the first night passed.
The second day followed in the footsteps of the first. More observations, more hasty notes, more oohs and aahs over how "human" the animals were. "They cooperate in small tasks like cracking nuts or fanning each other with leaves—a decidedly human characteristic," Hassler wrote. Then Jeanne wormed her way over to him, and he lost his train of thought. And so the second day passed and the second night came on.
It was about that time that the storm hit.
It was a real rainforest storm, striking in the dead of night. In the space of a few minutes all the equipment—tents, clothes, cameras, rifles, and food—was blown deep into the forest.
When morning came the researches were like ships without moorings. They drifted aimlessly, disoriented, unsure of what to do.
Hassler took charge.
"We need food, and shelter. What kinds of fruit can we eat?"
They set off in search of food.
It was about that time that the monkeys discovered the tents.
They had been blown, in a confused jumble, into a small clearing. The monkeys were good mimics. In a few minutes one of the tents was half set up and a few curious monkeys scurried inside, giggling like children at their new toy.
The researchers found only a few handfuls of nuts stuck in the roots of the trees. They began to try to divide them fairly, but they were all hungry, and hunger is a strong force, even stronger than love. In the process two researchers' noses were bloodied.
The nuts were not divided fairly.
It rained that night. The monkeys squealed with glee as they huddled in the tents, warm and dry. The researchers huddled together, but to no avail. When morning came they were soaked and cold. The men peeled off their wet shirts; the women removed what clothing they could. Clad only in the bare necessities of clothing, warming in the steamy sun, they set off deeper into the wood, resolved to find shelter.
It was about that time the monkeys found the clothing.
This was a bit of a puzzle to them at first, but at long last they managed to get pants on legs and hats on heads. Like children playing dress-up in their mother's clothes, they paraded about in their newfound beauty.
Meanwhile the researchers had found a small cave where some of them could take refuge. There was not enough room for all of them, though, and a bitter struggle arose when it began to thunder. By the time the rain fell ten were inside the cave, eight had fled into the forest, and two were dead.
The next day there was not enough food to go around. The humans had ceased speaking to each other, using only their bodies to communicate. A grab meant "Give me some!" Pulling away the food meant "No, you can't have any," That was their language.
That afternoon one of the researchers died from lack of food. That evening another was bitten by a snake and devoured while his companions ran away. The next morning Jeanne died. She had tried to take some of Hessler's food and he hit her. He hit her so hard that she cracked her head on the stony ground. No one said anything.
It was about that time the monkeys found the guns.
They had been blown aside and were lying almost in a puddle of water, but they had been under the undergrowth and were dry. Amazingly they still worked, and so did the Polaroid camera. One monkey remembered what to do. He lifted the rifle to his shoulder and, seeing a half-naked figure running through the trees, took aim.
The shot echoed through the forest like a heartbeat.
The monkey tossed down the rifle and ran to the corpse, laughing. The other monkeys gathered around the slain man. Now another monkey remembered. He lifted the camera, aimed at the body and the monkey who had killed it.
The shutter clicked, and they watched, to see what would develop.
© 2014 Celeste Ng
Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2014). The story featured here, “The Monkeys,” was one of her first serious attempts at short story writing when she was just 15 years old. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Currently she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son, where she teaches fiction writing at Grub Street and is at work on a second novel and a collection of short stories. Learn more about Celeste here: http://www.celesteng.com/
Like this story? Check out another great short from Issue 100.