Simon was a simian

Simon was a simian, but that’s not all. He had a pet human. Sure, he was careful about it. He made the human use a leash on him to make it look kosher. It wouldn’t do to have the authorities figure him out before he was ready to show his paw.

Sure, the human would hit him every now and then for show, to make it look like he was in charge. And Simon would snarl at him or cower, depending on the audience. It was all for show. The human knew the right force to use and how to pull back the stick just in time. He knew how to sell the blow so the punters would think he was in charge. But they both knew better. Simon called all the shots, always had.

Ever since he found his human alone and penniless in the side alley down the way from the tobacco shop, he knew his luck had changed. Now he could actually be in show business instead of begging in the streets. A monkey without a human was a nuisance. Everybody knew that. But a monkey with a human – now that was an act. People virtually lined up to put money in his little tin cup. Together they made a pretty penny with their hustle.

Sometimes he got the human to put strings on him to make it look like he was a marionette. Sometimes he’d walk around on stilts with a sign, some public service announcement. They’d do that on days when the cops were extra anxious to pop somebody for something. On those days they didn’t beg, but they still needed to go out to build their audience. Familiarity was important. Most people didn’t put money in the cup the first time they saw the pair.

The punters needed to see them several times, see others put money in first, to know what to do. It was a true hustle. It took a lot more finesse than you’d think. But they never did it too much. Just enough to afford a two bedroom walk-up on the East side, with enough left over to sponsor experiments in brain transfers.

Simon couldn’t wait to be done with his body. Nobody ever took him seriously. Who would? He was thankful that taboo in this culture kept him from being seen as food. The performing pigs and chickens didn’t have a chance once their skills started to wane. Their humans turned them straight into supper without so much as a “by your leave”, not like they would have gotten it anyway. Simon hoped to avoid that unpleasant experience long before it was a possibility. 

That’s why he was sponsoring research to transfer his consciousness into his human. It seemed simple enough on the surface. The brain was basically an electromagnetic medium. It seemed like it should be possible to re-record over what was there, laying down a new recording. His recording. Of his mind. 

He didn’t want anything as messy as an actual brain transplant, and he knew it wasn’t possible anyway, the differing sizes of the brains being the first issue. But also there was the matter of wiring of the nerves. Maybe he’d be able to think, but not able to talk or move. And if the transplant didn’t work, it might not be reversible. No, Simon wanted a sure thing, and he wanted it soon. But he was prepared to wait long enough to make sure it worked. In the meantime he’d continue the hustle and keep his human in the dark as to his plans.

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Music for Monkeys

music for monkeys

They gave up trying to teach a monkey to type the next Shakespeare play. But since music supposedly calms the savage, they taught him to play a tiny guitar instead. It made sense after all – he could play tunes to calm himself down, rather than a researcher having to do it. Once he had access to the guitar and finally understood that it was for making music and not for hitting people or other monkeys over the head, he calmed down dramatically. Just being able to express himself had the desired effect.

They’d tried to teach Abe how to sign but he wasn’t having it. It didn’t make sense to him – this gesture meant what? It was too abstract for him. Why make a sign with his hand, when he could grunt or scream at them? They eventually figured out what he wanted. Meanwhile, he enjoyed screaming. It was fun and made his keepers (his jailers) so anxious. It was funny to watch, to see how he could make them so upset and nervous.

But then they brought the guitar to him. The jailer played it at first and the tones were different, weren’t like their voices. The jailer even sang – and his voice was different, was kinder. If only they could always speak to him like that!

Abe thought  that maybe they could learn how to talk with music, so these dimwits could finally get him what he wanted faster. The amusement of their confusion was wearing off. He wanted to deal with them as little as possible. Even fighting was getting old.

Finally, after nearly a year of practice, he was ready for his first public performance. He was no longer in his cage – the audience would be shocked to think of how he been imprisoned. Most thought of it as a zoo, and either forgot or overlooked the fact that he didn’t choose to be there. He wasn’t asked when he was taken from his home. It wasn’t voluntary. He didn’t want to be an example of his kind.

Many thought of the zoo as an educational opportunity, a chance for people to learn about animals in a safe and clean environment. They also thought they were doing the animals a favor. The same “safe and clean environment” was so much better than a wilderness home, the people told themselves. They pointed out how the animals lived so much longer in captivity. They didn’t understand that quantity wasn’t the same as quality. Longer wasn’t necessarily better.

Abe was supposed to play a nursery song, one that was easy and would show off his talents. Nothing too complicated or he’d fumble and the audience would stare or laugh. It was important to get this right.

The audience wasn’t just any old audience. They were benefactors, donors, patrons of the arts. It was their generosity that made the “Music for Monkeys” program possible. If this failed, the whole program would end. It was all riding on Abe, but he had not been told this.

Yet he played better than expected, and more. He played flawlessly, with real feeling, for the first 20 minutes. Perhaps something took over then, some deep down part of him, because that feeling came up and out and over and suddenly he was playing a new song, a sad song. A song sadder than standing on the platform as the last train leaves for the evening. A song sadder than the end of summer break. A song so sad that the audience caught the feeling tied up inside it without words, and they understood the pain of imprisonment in the name of “education” or “rescue”. They heard within the notes his longing for a home he would never see again, a family he would never again embrace. It didn’t matter if they might no longer be alive because of disease or poachers. They had lived as monkeys, not as exhibits, as specimens, as one-off examples of their kind, meant to be on display to any and all, young and old, as the epitome of “monkey” to these rubes, these ticket holding members of this permanent circus that is a zoo (sometimes euphemistically termed a “wildlife park” for much the same reason cemeteries are now memorial gardens).

The audience felt through Abe’s new music the joy of waking up with the sunrise, embraced by the arms of a tree, with leaves as a blanket. It felt the joy of wandering every day to see new places and other animals, every night a new bed in a new tree. Every day was the first day for Abe’s kind – a new adventure and excuse to discover. No worries about a car or mortgage or clothes, so no worries about a job or reputation either.

The people thought they were safe because of all they owned but now they understood that it owned them. They had become chained themselves, slowly, but surely. They had put themselves into a zoo of their own making. They had forgotten their own wildness, their own true nature, in their striving to be civilized. Abe, with his monkey music, reminded them of who they really were, and who they could become again.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. When the music finally stopped, when the guitar strings stilled, they all sat in silence for what seemed like forever. Finally a child spoke, and asked Abe what his real name was, the one before his capture. What was the sound his family, blood and otherwise, called him? And he didn’t know. It was lost to him, trained out of him for so many years. So the child gave him a new name, a snippet of that song that awoke them all, as a reminder of who he truly was.