Cigarette burns scar the old mahogany dresser on which a mirror swings slowly on rusting hinges. The knobs have long since disappeared, leaving the drawers lying open at odd angles in the still morning air. Inside the top one a monkey, sinewy and slender with silvery brown fur, stretches languidly on its stomach as it toys with a white marble, pushing it between two paws, playing an indolent game of catch with himself. Suddenly he leaps out and lands on the dusty green chenille bedspread, his prehensile fingers and toes combing through the tufts, feeling them, smelling them. He begins to dig in the fabric frantically as if to unearth a treasure, a secret. His nose nuzzles the worn cloth. In a frenzy he tries to penetrate the soft bedspread, sinking finely pointed teeth into the fabric, ripping and shredding through to sheets pulled taut over a mattress that sags in the shape of its earlier inhabitants. His nose quivers, then fills with a complex layering of soft powders, rosy scents, and the smell of man. Electrified by a deep subdural knowledge, he seems to shrink to a fragile earlier state, plunged into memory.
The spray of tangerine juice, a pale perfume of roses dried and crushed and left in a cracked bowl, the thick scent of lovemaking trapped in the folds of sheet, the powdery residue of shades frayed from being pulled up and down too many times: these are the smells that pull the monkey back to a time when the room was full of pleasure and sensual delight.
The monkey belongs to Diana. With her ginger-colored curls and soft faded clothes, she looked even younger thanher seventeen years. For a few weeks that spring, she was often alone with the monkey, who clung to her and rode on her back like an animated knapsack. Diana gave him the run of the place. He scampered up and down stairs and into the several rooms that opened onto a central hall. He knew the worn floors, polished to a faded gleam by the feet of so many visitors, the rugs that were frayed at the edges, and the old mismatched furniture that made each room distinct within the possibilities of such a place.
Once, before calamity came, the room had been part of a great house built in the eighteenth century by a family of immense wealth. Leaders of business, government, and society had gathered in its impressive rooms, but by the time Diana came to live there, the family house had already begun the steep descent from its years of greatness.
Diana's father had fled from its confines many years in the past and, when he returned home from a sea voyage to Australia not long after the end of the Second World War, with Miranda, his unannounced fifteen-year-old bride, his mother was so cold and disdainful that Miranda immediately persuaded her new husband to take her traveling. `She's a child, Anton, an ill-bred, unmannered and grasping child' was his mother's uncompromising verdict. `Let's leave, Anton, please. We can go anywhere, I don't care where. Just don't make me stay here.' Miranda grabbed his hand and took his thumb into her mouth, sucking at the juices. His eyes locked on hers. She tipped up her chin so he could stroke her palate, so his fingers could stroke the soft flesh at the sides of her mouth.
When they returned to the house ten years later accompanied by Diana, their one child, Miranda had changed. With her darkly tanned skin, her hair plaited in a single long braid, and her ripe body wrapped in an indigo sheath, she had become a singularly outspoken and commanding woman.
She strode into the house and strewed the canvas bags and trunks in the rooms she chose for them. `We've come home,' she informed Ria, her husband's mother, who watched silently as she snapped open the hasps and locks of their trunks and pulled out objects of beauty and strangeness. `We have something for you,' she said, plunging her hands into a trunk full of hair ornaments, rugs in dazzling colors, a clump of tightly braided jute ropes connected to one another with elaborate hooks, and journals bound in soft leather covers. The old lady stared as Miranda extracted a brilliant green scarf sprinkled with tiny yellow blossoms, a gigantic black and crimson shawl shot through with golden thread, and boxes of stained bamboo and bark that stacked into a tall tower. They hardly fit in with the porcelain plates Ria had so carefully collected or with the soft pastels and silvery grey shawls she wore, but she thanked Miranda as she tied the scarf at her neck, sniffing suspiciously at the foreign odor it emitted.
Anton, Diana's father, a purveyor of implements for ships, left home frequently on sea voyages, and in those days, the three women — grandmother, mother, and daughter — lived in suspension, waiting for his return. Every evening Diana sat in the kitchen as Miranda chopped vegetables and stirred a pot of spicy stew or soup. It was then that she acquired her first monkey and it was then that she first heard the tales of the earlier times in her parents' marriage.
They had lived a watery life, drifting from island to island, settling for months at a time before Anton's curiosity and wanderlust forced them to move on. Diana's first bed was a tiny hammock strung between two low green plants. As her ginger-colored hair grew thick as a bird's nest, her father carved little moon-shaped combs for her. He showed her how they fit into the soft flesh of her palms and taught her to draw them through her hair until it rippled like a mermaid's. As the light of day faded, he taught her to hold a comb up to the distant surface of the pale moon and draw it back and forth until the opalescent circle shone strong in the sky, spilling out into pinpoints of light that were the stars and constellations. He taught her about the Milky Way, Cassiopeia, and the big bear who fished in the streams of the sky. He taught her to cup her hands and dip them into warm waters, pulling out silvery fish whose flashing tails tickled and caused her to drop them back into the sea. The family lived easily on the abundant fruit that grew on the trees, on vegetation that grew in the rich earth, on the fish of the sea and the eggs of the immense colonies of sea birds that floated on the waters every evening at dusk.
Each time the three of them moved, they packed up their growing possessions — the cloth made by native women in colors like flowers unfolding at dawn, necklaces of spiky coral, cutlery made of bone with glowing stones set in the handles, basins and mortars and pestles scooped out of local rock. Everywhere they went Diana's father collected ceremonial fetishes, fertility symbols with swollen bellies or huge stiff members, old men with the heads and wings of birds spread to protect young women with blank expressions in their eyes. He carried away with him crocodiles that appeared to be swallowing the moon in the shape of a maiden, and masks of multicolored serpents encircling a man and woman joined together.
Their moves became more frequent as Diana's father sought for a solution to a deeply felt, nameless need. Satisfaction seemed to slip through his fingers as the waters through which they traveled rushed through the fingers he trailed in the sea. When she was six, the family left the soft air of small islands for the windy expanses of an inland town.
Cautiously exploring her new environment, Diana encountered a colony of monkeys. They lived in the huge enclosed garden of a local merchant and their chatter and activity instantly attracted her. At any opportunity she escaped from the confines of the house and ran to the gates of the garden to watch the monkeys as they leapt from branch to branch, talking and grooming one another with an easy intimacy. The guardian of the gates of the garden, a squat bald man with butterscotch-colored skin, eyed the child with suspicion.
After several days of studying her intently, he crept from the shade of a large leafy tree, clamped a thick hand on Diana's bony shoulder, and commanded her not to move. She went rigid with fear. When she opened her mouth to scream, vocal cords tensed thin as taut wire, she could make no sound at all. The clutch of terror wrapped her in a numbness as isolating as a thick blanket of fog. She broke into terrified sobs and began to shake, so unnerving the man who had planned to send her away forever that he reached into his back pocket, brought out a large and very dirty piece of cloth, and shoved it at her.
Then he whistled through the gap in his front teeth and Diana watched as the mother monkey swung hand over hand with a baby clutching her chest, landing on the branch of the tree nearest the gate. His voice, so different from the original growl she had heard, was a sort of chatter in a choppy sing-song rhythm. The monkey responded ecstatically, swinging its head from side to side and leaping up and down so enthusiastically that the branch swung dangerously close to the earth. The man's hand now reached into another pocket and brought forth a handful of vermilion seeds, which he thrust through the iron grillwork of the gate. Instantly the monkey swooped down and grabbed them before returning to the branch to feed herself and her baby. When the man found another handful of the brilliant seeds, he gave them to Diana so that when the monkey returned it was from Diana's hand that she ate.
On her third visit the man unlocked the gates of the garden and allowed Diana entrance. There was a whole colony of monkeys with spiky grey-brown fur that darkened to smoky black on their feet, palms, and faces. Their screeching and chattering filled the air, causing the leaves to stir as if their voices were the wind and the leaves waves on the water. Soon she became as familiar to them as the guardian and they allowed her to feed them slices of papaya and mango, glowing orange loquats, sweet green plums, and red-fleshed fruits whose rich, custardy interiors were studded with watermelon-like seeds.
Miranda might have noticed her daughter's absence earlier had her life not become much more complicated in their latest move. Anton had entered into dealings with several local traders, which entailed his setting off on sea journeys of some length. He always returned with more money than he had before, although it seemed to evaporate swiftly and require yet another trip, and then another. In his absences, Miranda began cooking for some of the local women, who were enchanted by her ability to cadge new flavor from local ingredients and to present them in enticing dishes. Reveling in their praise, she soon was so busy shopping and chopping and cooking that she wasn't aware of the length or frequency of Diana's absences. It was only when the girl came home with a tiny monkey on her shoulder that she realized her daughter had a life about which she knew nothing.
`Where did you get that animal?' Miranda asked, backing away from the small, furry bundle in her daughter's arms. The women of the village all knew, of course. They saw her disappear every morning; they even called her Monkey Girl. They speculated on the questionable business that took her father away, for they had learned that he strapped a finely honed knife to his calf whenever he went out. They had heard about his luck at cards and his bouts of drinking the cheapest local potions at the only bar in town. Diana's mother began to suspect that he was trading in contraband, but she was afraid to ask and when she hinted at her worries, he grew cold and turned away, neither answering her questions nor confirming her doubts.
Not long after an awkward conversation with her, he left on a brief voyage, and when he returned a deep circular cut surrounded the fleshy part of his left breast and broad marks striped his back. He refused to answer Miranda's questions about his injuries and merely gave her a furious look. She realized that she had grown afraid. The time had come to leave the places of their wanderings and return to the home to which he had originally brought her.
Overhearing pieces of their arguments, Diana fled to the monkeys. She had given names to the ones that were special to her. She played games with them, fed them, and sang songs made up especially for them. Often the mother monkey rode on her shoulders, arms wrapped loosely around her forehead, and they voyaged together beneath trees with thick trunks and roots that extended into the earth in rich complicated patterns. The babies snuggled under her neck and chattered with her, and she rocked them back and forth, stroking their soft fur.
Diana fought furiously against leaving. She screamed at her mother. She pleaded to stay with Majine, the keeper of the gardens. She raged and sobbed until her tears turned into deep body-shaking hiccups that left her unable to speak or even catch her breath. She all but spat upon her father. She begged to be allowed to take one monkey with her. Diana's mother tried reasoning with her, explaining that the monkey could not survive without all its family members and the garden that contained them. Diana refused to listen and stormed in and out of the house as her mother continued calmly to pack. Soon after, they loaded their belongings on to the boat and sailed away from the only existence Diana had ever known.