Sergeant Jangles

Jayne sure loved her monkey friend Sergeant Jangles. He wasn’t friends with just anyone, as he so often told her. He couldn’t afford to be, not with his position. He oversaw a regimen of Simian Soldiers, all raised like him to be different from the average monkey. In many ways they were different from the average human as well.

You see, they were educated from birth to be self-sufficient and quite capable. They were given training on how to cook, how to drive specially designed cars, and how to communicate using sign language. Some were assigned to assist humans with disabilities, while others were assigned as soldiers. They were all quite intelligent, insightful, and wise, capable of making independent decisions.

And yet they weren’t citizens. Unable to vote, to marry, to own property, they were beneath the law, an invisible slave workforce. Their owners thought nothing of it. Why would they? They collected all their salary without having to provide any more than food and lodging, both of which were minimal for their charges. When pressed by members of the Monkey Liberation League (whose motto was “Monkeys are People too!”) they would bring up the expense of training and clothing, saying that the fees had yet to be recouped. When pressed further, they hemmed and hawed about exactly when that date would be reached. They’d say things like “Well you see, new uniforms have to be custom-made, and that don’t come cheap. They tear up their clothes so often, you see. And then there’s the hats. You can’t imagine how expensive they are, and they lose them all the time. Just when the debt is about paid up, there they go needing something else again. Why, they should be grateful we take care of them at all, as much bother as they are.”

Meanwhile, their owners never worked and lived in the better parts of town and ate at the better restaurants. You could always count on finding at least a dozen of them in the fancy hip coffee houses downtown during the day while their charges worked.

Jayne wasn’t a member of the League – she was much too young. She had not even heard about it and most likely never would. Her people didn’t waste time on such shenanigans as liberating others. They barely had time to look after their own selves – and when they had a spare moment to think about the plight of the less fortunate, generally thought it was the for the best for them to take up their own fight. It wouldn’t be right to do somebody else’s work for them, now would it? Nobody marched or rallied for them and they were just fine with that.

Jayne first met Jangles when he was a private in the Simian Army Corps, back when he was first starting out. Many monkeys made it up to sergeant, but never any further. It wasn’t for lack of ability. They had that in spades. It was the simple fact that if they became Lieutenants they’d expect to become Colonels, and that was unthinkable. Then it would be even more obvious that they were capable of being full citizens, and that wouldn’t do. So they were kept low to avoid the question even arising.

Not like Jangles ever worried about such things. He was content to do his work as long as he had to. He didn’t count down the days until he could retire. He didn’t look up his pension amount every few months, when things got stressful. He got used to not being listened to, not having any real authority. Sure, his superiors told him that his happiness mattered, but when it came down to providing concrete solutions towards creating said happiness, they were silent. And any suggestion he offered was immediately discounted as being unfeasible. They were all talk and no action, blaming their employee’s dissatisfaction with the unequal work/life balance on the employees and never on themselves. They had fulfilled their required duties by having the “happiness talk” and left it at that. Once Jangles realized this was his reality, he accepted it. It was the monkey way – that which cannot be changed must be accepted.

One thing that was changed was his name. Of course his true name wasn’t Jangles. That was randomly assigned to him by his “caretaker”. Owner, manager, boss, slave master, however you wanted to think about it – it was all the same. Some titles sounded better than others, but they all described the same person. “Caretaker” was probably the most deceptive and sugar-coated, or to put it honestly, the most untrue. They didn’t take care of the monkeys at all. They cared for them just enough to keep them working, not out of any concern for the monkeys well-being, but for their own wallets.

The “caretakers” didn’t bother to ask the monkeys what their names were. They didn’t even consider the question. To them the monkeys were dumb animals, barely more intelligent than the family dog. Dogs got demeaning names like Spot or Scout or Snowball, so why shouldn’t monkeys? In the same vein, the monkeys were taught a sort of sign language so they could answer their keeper’s questions but it was never used to ask them anything. That would be absurd.

Jayne had learned the sign, same as everyone else in the town. They all had to, so they could give orders to the monkeys. But she, being a child, and a female one at that, instinctually understood the position of the monkey workers. She understood the dynamic of lesser-than, of powerless. She understood what it was like to be talked at and never with. Thankfully she didn’t follow the usual course of passing on the oppression. Lesser-thans usually treated their perceived inferiors the same as how they had been treated, handing down abuse the same way poor families handed down clothes. Thankfully, Jayne knew better, and acted better. So she asked Jangles what his real name was when they first met. This was done privately of course, and the name was kept secret. She never spoke it aloud or used his unique hand-sign within the presence of an adult. It was critical that she kept up the illusion of hierarchy, or else their friendship would have been terminated.

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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.

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.