It crept up on her, starting just before her 62nd birthday: something wasn’t quite right with her body. Her stomach felt gassy at times, bloated and unsettled. No pain. An old malady for her, periodically she had attacks of gas and spasms, but she assumed it was irritable bowel syndrome. Still, Laura’s new doctor wanted to investigate, so here she was in the radiology lab’s ultrasound room, staring at the squares in the ceiling, seeking the security of their borders, reciting “Om Mani Padmi Hum.”
And then it was over.
Laura stumbled out of the radiology lab and into the bright Marin sunlight, past the old people huddled in the waiting room, their faces drawn, her future self reflected there. How many times would she have to go through the terror of interminable tests before she died? What would the ultrasound reveal? Cancerous tumors? What mysteries lurked inside her body to be uncovered?
The cool November air slapped her face, awakening Laura from her reverie. She found her car in the parking lot and took out her cell phone, speed dialing her husband, but she only reached his voice mail. “It’s done,” she said. “I’m off to decompress.”
Going straight home was out of the question for her. Rattling around the house and worrying about the test results. She’d sooner rattle around nature and be reassured that she wasn’t about to die, that cancer hadn’t gotten its claws into her just yet. Maybe never. Not everyone attracted cancer. Surely she wouldn’t be so lucky.
She aimed the car towards Bon Tempe, one of Marin County’s Municipal Water District lakes where she liked to hike. Once there, she parked, locked the car, and headed down the trail circling the lake. Coming from the impersonality of a medical facility caused all of her senses to be on high alert, clamoring for attention. She could smell pine and eucalyptus and grasses, everything blending together into one odiferous scent. Except for an occasional airplane flying over, birds’ calls or the crunch of her shoes on fallen leaves were the only sounds she heard, other than her own breathing. In and out. In and out. So effortless. So reliable. It was hard to imagine these basic functions ever shutting down.
Being in nature had always erased her fears. This time was no different. She forgot sonograms, doctors, and the whole medical world. Her mind floated somewhere above her body, focusing on the rustle of small animals zipping through undergrowth, joining them on their journeys close to the earth. She became one with the teeming life, much of it not visible, her feeble human self sacrificed to this world that functioned instinctively. She longed for this total merging of mind and body that animals possessed. Loss of mind actually. Just reflex.
The shadows deepened as she left the path on the sunny side of the lake and entered the tree-shaded area. The sun felt good on this fall day. It penetrated her light jacket, releasing whatever tension that still constricted her muscles. A hint of winter was in the air, but late summer’s lusty heat pushed back at the cooler shade. As she ambled along, in no hurry to end her walk, she became aware of an unusual sound. Chattering and occasional screeching broke into her musing. She paused and looked around, puzzled. Something moved in the bushes at the side of the trail, and the chattering became louder, more insistent.
The branches parted, and she was staring at a large monkey, its brown eyes lively and alert, taking her in, studying her. It bared its teeth in a broad grin. They were amazingly white in the whiskery tan of his/her face and showed no visible decay. At least Laura hoped it was a grin and not a hostile expression. She’d heard of wild boars and mountain lions hiding out on Mount Tam. Hikers occasionally saw them. But a monkey? Really. That was the most ludicrous thing she could imagine. Advanced in age, its shaggy hair was thinning and disheveled.
An eternity seemed to pass while they sized up one another and waited for a response. Clearly, they didn’t speak the same language. Did the monkey even have one? As if responding clairvoyantly to Laura’s thoughts, it chattered again and screeched. The sound pierced her chest as if a knife had entered her heart. She grabbed at her breast. The monkey drew back, its body language expressing fear from her sudden movement.
Laura felt appalled that she had frightened this animal. It seemed wrong that it too felt fear. She realized that the monkey had natural predators, humans being one of them, but she liked to think that non-humans didn’t suffer from the same anxieties she did. Of course, she was romanticizing beasts, making them holy in some way, putting them on a pedestal. She should know by now how fruitless that projection was, not only for her but also for the monkey.
It screeched again, moving its lips. They quivered, one minute covering its teeth, the next revealing them, creating a sinister grin. She looked around, hoping another hiker would either confirm her madness or share in the oddity of finding this creature here.
The same question she had asked herself earlier returned. How did it get there? It wasn’t the usual thing one would run into near the water district lakes or in Marin County, the place of peacock feathers and hot tubs. If it had escaped from the San Francisco Zoo, how had it crossed the Bay? It must be someone’s pet that had either gotten lost or was seeking freedom. She could relate to that. Freedom seemed an honorable goal to restore its dignity. Being someone’s pet had its advantages, but not if the animal were accustomed to living in the wild, relying on its own resources. This thought made her more sympathetic towards the monkey. She didn’t want to block its flight.
Laura decided the best strategy for protecting both herself and the monkey was to ignore it, pretending it didn’t exist. So she started walking, disregarding the rush of insistent chatter that followed her. Determined not to turn around, she kept her eyes on the path in front of her, eager now to return as quickly as possible to civilization. She didn’t even mind the thought of facing her test results. That seemed preferable to tangling with this rascal.
The monkey almost knocked her to the ground when it swung through the trees and landed on her back, wrapping its tail and legs around her waist, gripping her shoulders with its hands, and screeching. The shriek so close to her ear was deafening. Laura screamed, but the sound couldn’t penetrate all that gorgeous green surrounding them. It echoed hollowly in the clearing, mocking, daring her to match the monkey’s intensity. She twisted and turned, struggling to free herself from its unwelcome embrace, but the more she resisted, the more she realized how powerful it was. The monkey had her in its grip, and fleeing was impossible.
Impossible too was the way it nuzzled its face against hers, continuing to chatter and screech. It wasn’t just the proximity of the animal’s gritty and grimy matted hair that was appalling. It also had severely bad breath. Neither Crest nor Listerine could help this repelling odor.
But no matter how hard Laura tried to shake off the animal, it didn’t budge. Her movements only made it cling to her more tightly. The panic she felt seemed to increase the animal’s panic. One consolation? She no longer worried about test results or doctors’ visits, though she would have preferred dealing with something mundane and not this complication.
The words “she has a monkey on her back” kept repeating in her mind. Could she be carrying around something from her past that prevented her from plunging into the future? Was she strung out on something? Did she have “issues” she wasn’t aware of? None of these things made sense. Her life seemed pretty ordinary. One divorce. Two grown children from that marriage. A current husband who was all she could hope for: kind, considerate, attentive. Satisfying volunteer work at the library, helping disadvantaged kids learn how to read. A pleasing quiet life. If it lacked anything it was adventure, but she wasn’t the type that needed a lot of excitement.
She couldn’t say that now. She felt a little like red riding hood scampering through the forest to her grandmother’s house and ending up with a wolf to deal with. The monkey didn’t seem as sinister as a wolf, but it certainly was persistent, continuing its non-stop chatter in her ear, flecks of spit landing on Laura’s cheek. The thought of what diseases it might carry sent her into another frenzy of action as she tried to extricate herself from its grip. But again, her turmoil only increased the monkey’s determination to hold on. Laura had hoped a walk in nature would alleviate her fears about her health, but she ended up in a situation that could really make her sick. AIDS? Hadn’t it originated in monkeys?
And then she felt something wet on her back. The warmth quickly turned into a clammy cool feeling as the urine penetrated her clothes. Disgusting! Determined to free herself, she pushed at the monkey’s arms and legs, trying to pry them loose, but the more Laura resisted, the more tightly the monkey attached itself to her, its tail coiled tightly around her.
Trying to ignore her hitchhiker, she plunged ahead, stumbling under its weight, hopeful she could get help in the parking lot. The urine smell was making her nauseous, and she longed to strip off her clothes right there, get rid of the dampness and the piercing odor. She had a dim recollection of Jane, Tarzan’s partner in the jungle. Didn’t she cavort almost naked? For an instant, Laura played with the idea of being a modern-day Jane, only her Tarzan wasn’t human. It wasn’t a path she wanted to trod.
Maybe the monkey was just old and tired, needing another pair of legs to cart it around. But her mind kept returning to the metaphor of having a monkey on her back: Could it be forcing her to face something she hadn’t wanted to deal with? She’d played with meditation at times in her life and knew about monkey mind, how her thoughts could hold her back from thinking clearly and feeling more peaceful.
A sharp pain pierced her shoulder. Blood seeped into her white cotton top. Laura screamed again. The monkey—chattering and screeching, baring its teeth—had bitten her. Something arose in Laura, a deep rage she’d never let herself feel before. It took over her whole body, and she turned on her captor, biting the hand gripping her shoulder until the monkey’s blood gushed. She didn’t stop there. She bit the cheek that rested so close to her own, a sudden fury making her shake and screech, wanting to strike out at this animal to atone for her own suffering. A wild thing, totally out of control now, she lashed out with her hands, with her feet, scratching, kicking. The monkey drew back, flashes of fear in its eyes, releasing its grip on her and fleeing into the trees.
Laura also fled, racing along the pathway, stumbling on exposed roots and rocks, ripping off her pee-soaked clothes along the way, not letting up till she reached her car. Several other hikers stood in the parking area and stared at her exposed body—taking in the scratches on her face and hands, the crazed expression on her face, as frightening to them as the monkey had seemed to her.
But she ignored them, climbing into the car, the urine smell still clinging to her. A hot shower was all she could think of, something to purify herself—to wash away this past hour. She turned the key in the ignition, backed up, and roared down the road, driving by instinct, not believing she was finally free, expecting to find the monkey in the back seat or lurking around some corner. Yet what was she free from? She wasn’t sure. It all seemed like a nightmare, beyond belief. To have felt so helpless in this creature’s grip, unable to shake it loose until she became little more than an animal herself.
Houses flashed past on the drive to Fairfax, the neat middle-class structures appearing fragile—unable to keep out whatever dark forces lurked beyond.
About the Author
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl for the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got her legs broken, founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created THE STORY SHOPPE, a weekly radio program for children, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees. Her reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir have appeared in over 150 American and Canadian venues. Fling! was published in 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, launches in 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011.
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3 responses to “The Monkey on Her Back by Lily Iona MacKenzie”
Wow! That was absolutely amazing and thought-provoking. I’m going to have to go back and reread it to make sure I got everything, but so much was said with this short story. Great writing!
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I agree! A very powerful story!
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Pretty amazing. And jarring and unsettling. Intense doesn’t even begin to get at this…
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