The Small Black Monkey

by Erika Byrne-Ludwig

Snow was whitening the prairies, the treetops, the roofs and the church. The village appeared dormant under its cold, sparkling covering. It was one of those winters when snow never seemed to melt away. There was a permanent look about it, a polar look.

It was a school day. Johno walked downhill. On the crispy snow his rubber soles left their marks pressed down by the weight of a ten-year old, with a boot size bigger than his feet. He reached the bridge and started uphill. He could have closed his eyes, the road was so familiar. All he had to do was go straight ahead and ignore the rest of the countryside. The way he had been doing it for the past four years. But not today. He looked to the left, above the river. An impulse probably. Or was it that fleeting shadow in the corner of his eye.

It looked like an animal, a cat, a small dog, some squirrel. Animals resemble each other at times. At least from a distance. Johno watched it walk across the snow and climb up the linden tree. Once above the white landscape, on the leafless branches, close scrutiny became difficult. He went up the slope. Now he could see the animal's long tail, but tails and branches can get confused. He would have liked to cross the field and approach the creature, make little calls. Tame it perhaps, pick it up, take it to school. On the weekend perhaps. Now, he just looked, wondered, puzzled, until it began to snow. At that moment he clearly saw the animal raise its hand, take off an imaginary hat and seemingly bow at the boy.

Johno had met with all sorts of animals, made friends with ferrets and badgers. He thought he knew all the secrets of his surroundings and the corners and dens where certain creatures hid. Yet this thin long-tailed animal appeared to be a unique individual, quite classy in its mannerisms. Johno had once been to the circus. For a moment his eyes looked back at that evening when in front of him the agile monkeys played the most amusing tricks on stage. But no more lingering. He had to go to class, tell the teacher about the small vagabond up on the linden tree.

Back in the classroom the trick was to convince others than himself. No one believed him when he said in his usual earnest way: "Down by the river ... I saw a monkey.''

A mountain of pebbles toppled down. "Five minutes detention!'' the teacher shouted, still writing on the blackboard.

Johno knew he'd have to face some laughter. He hadn't dreamt what he saw. He had seen a monkey. No one could say he was imagining things. Even if the glaring nature around might possibly have played on his eyes and mind, might have transformed a cat into a monkey. Johno didn't believe in making things up. No, he was confident his mind was not fooling him and that his eyes had seen the real thing.

"Now, Johno, will you repeat what you said?'' The teacher wheeled round and looked at the latecomer for the first time.

"It was a monkey,'' the boy replied, staring at the teacher's huge set of teeth and his thick fringe which always reminded him of his horse.

"Any proof of that?''

"I saw it on the tree and there must be footprints,'' Johno replied after some hesitation.

"Footprints? In this weather?'' The pebbles crumbled down again. "Ten minutes detention!''

Johno persisted in his belief. He, he only, had seen the elusive creature. Whether his siblings believed him or not, they put their boots on and joined him in the search the following morning. The linden tree was there, isolated crows were cawing and sparrows fretting. Up on the canopy there were whispers, sighs, crackling noises. The snow's language. But they never heard a squeaky or screechy monkey sound.

"Stand next to me, Johno, while I read this to the class,'' the teacher ordered in a somewhat solemn tone of voice, three days after the boy had related his monkey incident.

Near the Church of Villemare,

A black monkey was found dead.

The Pinker Circus claims the loss,

During a stop, of Moustache,

Their valuable entertainer.

He turned to Johno and shook his hand. "I should have believed you. We could have saved that primate."

The boy had fallen into a moment of deep animal's circus act, and slowly returned Moustache's wave. Exactly the way the monkey had done it. Elegantly. Silence had fallen in the classroom with the softness of an unseasonal snow.