The Ebola virus has certainly captured the world's attention, especially now it's moved into Europe and the USA. The first outbreak of this deadly virus occurred in 1976, when it was more commonly known as the Green Monkey Disease, since it was thought to have originated in a particular type of monkey. I happened to be travelling in South Sudan at the time, and was devastated to find many villages deserted, their inhabitants either struck down by the disease or having fled to escape its contagious grip.
Some years later, when I was preparing a book of short stories as part of my M.A. in English (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University, I used my visit to this obscure part of the world as the basis for a story called...
THE GREEN MONKEY’S TALE
The truck ploughed to a stop, sending clouds of red dust swirling into the dense jungle of the Central African Republic. As the haze cleared, a small boy became visible at the roadside, holding out the body of a dead monkey by the tail. He squinted at the driver and shouted.
“Hey, mister! Fresh shot today! Only fifty francs!”
“Let me see,” the driver responded, a gleam in his eye. “Fifty francs, hey? Well, take this for it.” He pushed three ten-franc notes into the boy’s hand, and swung the corpse onto the dashboard of the cab. The boy ran off into the undergrowth, pushing the notes into his ragged shorts, while the driver pulled away again, grinning at Chris, his English passenger.
“Hey, man, now we have a feast tonight. You eat monkey before?” he asked, his white eyes shining from the deep caverns of his cranium.
“No, Emille,” Chris answered, wincing at the thought. “I’ve eaten some strange things lately – snake, elephant, locusts – but never monkey.”
The tiny skull of the animal seemed to sneer at him as it rocked on the dashboard like a stuffed toy. Its minute hands still clung to an imaginary branch and its green fur bristled.
Chris turned his head out of the window to avoid the stench, but he was determined not to let anything put him off. As a student of anthropology in London, he had become fascinated by accounts of the Azande tribe, whose belief in magic and supernatural forces seemed to govern their lives, and an overwhelming curiosity had set him out on this journey when he finished his studies.
Now his excitement grew, knowing that he was moving closer to Azande territory. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead and brushed thick fingers through his matted blond hair. The red dust was everywhere – smothering his jeans and vest, his sunburnt shoulders, his pack on the floor – and still it swirled in through the windows. The lush vegetation flashed by as Emille, the Bantu driver, bounced the truck towards its destination at top speed, a sparkle of anticipation in his eye.
“Hey, Emille, what do you know of the Azande?” Chris asked.
Emille flashed an icy look before breaking into a carefree grin: “Oh, those guys, man, them crazy. They always singin’ to plants and talkin’ to animals – got crazy magic! You beware go near them – they sure strange people.”
Chris smiled, expecting such a reaction. He knew that, though these tribes rarely fought, they had a strong mistrust of each other. Emille fell silent, his eyes fixed in the distance, his small hands gripping the wheel as the truck lurched along the ever-narrowing track towards his village.
Later that evening Chris walked away from the stream, clean and refreshed, to join Emille and his wife, Ziba, outside their hut. He ran his fingers through his sleek hair and inspected the growing stubble on his square jawline. His cheeks were flushed and his blue eyes glinted in the firelight. As he approached, Emille and Ziba were erecting a support of sticks around the fire and then placed the monkey to roast above it. Ziba pummelled a bowl of manioc, her arms moving as tirelessly as pistons into the doughy mass. Emille showed Chris a version of draughts, shifting small pebbles between shallow depressions in the earth. Chris flexed his thighs and shoulders, which still ached from the ride, then sighed in pleasure at the night, which was silent but for the crackle of wood and clatter of pebbles.
Occasionally the flames would reach up to the monkey, singeing the fur and sending a flurry of sparks into the moonless night. After a time Emille turned the corpse face-up, cradling the small skull in the fork of the supporting sticks. Chris watched absorbed. The monkey’s mouth was set open in a snarl, strangely lifelike in the firelight. Suddenly the stomach began to rise and Chris jumped, believing for a moment that the animal was breathing. But instead of falling, the stomach continued swelling like a balloon, until with a hiss it burst and peeled back, exposing the gaseous intestines which squirmed like snakes. With deft hands, Ziba scraped away the remaining fur and removed the intestines.
“Where you go from here?” Emille asked as Chris puzzled over the strange game.
“Oh, I’m heading east, out towards the Sudanese border.” Chris answered, still gazing at the game.
“Huh, through Azande land? Well, I warned you.” Emille said with a shrug, “And I hope you have good feet. Now is rain season… road real bad out there…no trucks go.”
The news came as a shock to Chris, who had hoped to find a ride to the border. But he guessed he was no more than a hundred kilometres away, and was thrilled at the thought of leaving other travellers behind.
“Hell, Emille, I’m in no hurry.” Chris grinned. “I know most travellers want to get through to the coast or south as quick as possible, but I want to spend time around here. Any objections?”
“No…er, no.” Emille answered, a hint of fear flashing across his face, and returned to the game.
Soon the meal was ready. Emille and Ziba ate eagerly, but Chris chewed the fibrous meat with a frown. Emille giggled at him as his jaws worked hungrily. With a flick of his wrist he snapped off the head, no larger than an orange, from the top of the corpse, and offered it to Chris. The monkey’s snarl still seemed defiant and Chris declined with a nervous smile. Emille scooped out a fingerful of softened brains, popped them in his mouth and squirmed with delight to show Chris what he was missing. He became insistent and the second time Chris accepted. He imitated Emille’s scooping technique, turning the face downwards to avoid the undying expression on the blackened skull.
He was surprised to find a delicate taste and texture to the mass, much preferable to the rough meat he had been gnawing. Emille slapped his thighs and Chris’s back, grinning and giving a thumbs-up sign. With another scoop, Chris hollowed out the remaining brains and followed it down with a sip of rich coffee. He smacked his lips in appreciation and nodded thankfully to Ziba, who smiled shyly and gathered the bones into a soup pot.
Emille made the fire up and settled back to continue the game, while Ziba disappeared into the mud hut. But soon Chris grew heavy with tiredness and, before they could finish the game, he fell into a deep sleep on his mat beside the fire, dreaming of a frantic jungle chase, in which he was sometimes the hunter, others the hunted.
* * *
At first light, Ziba was bustling about, and Chris woke to the strong smell of coffee. After drinking a mugfull, he reorganized his heavy pack and prepared to move on. He waved goodbye to Emille and Ziba while the sun was still low in the sky. Soon after leaving the village, he found that the track became a rugged path, moving in and out of the jungle. In parts the route was completely washed away by tropical storms and he had to cross deep gulleys and clamber over trees that had fallen across the path.
Entering an area of dense growth, he suddenly froze as a loud scream came from the canopy above him. He glanced up and caught a glimpse of a pair of eyes that glared at him through the branches. Yet in the instant Chris saw them they disappeared, and he saw nothing more than a flurry moving off through the treetops. He shuddered and moved on, feeling uneasy, but angry with himself for such an exaggerated reaction.
After a while, he came to a stream where he stopped to rest in the shade of some bushes while the sun raged overhead. He ate a few bananas that Ziba had given him for his journey, and took a drink from the cool stream. Attracted by its sparkle, he found a small pool, stripped off his clothes and let the water run over his body. He revelled in the soothing sensation and when he moved on, he felt once again the excitement of being on the verge of discovery.
But soon the path took him back into the forest where progress was slower through the profuse undergrowth. Creepers tangled around his ankles like clinging tentacles and he flailed constantly to wrench himself free. When he came out of that dense forest, he breathed a sigh of relief and shook the sweat from his hair. He found himself among cotton fields, where the fluffy buds stuck to the bushes like Christmas decorations. He passed through a collection of huts but met no people. Presuming they were all working in the fields, he walked on, eager to penetrate as far as he could into Azande territory that day.
He was glad that the path seemed to skirt the forest from then on, making the going easier. Then, as the sun sank lower in the sky, an intense weariness came over him. He started to worry that night would come before he found another village but, as his shadow stretched out before him, he recognized coffee bushes beside the path, with their swollen red beans clustered below the shiny leaves. Soon he caught the sweet scent of smoke and, focussing on the distance, he made out a group of huts at the end of the path.
* * *
At the first hut he came to, an Azande tribesman gestured him over to a small seat beside a fire that he was preparing. He introduced himself as Karshi, and examined Chris with a childlike curiosity. Chris felt dizzy. His feet throbbed, his shoulders sagged from the weight of his pack, and at that moment the miniature wooden stool seemed as comfortable as any armchair. Karshi sat beside him in the spotlessly swept yard in front of his squat hut and pushed twigs around in the fire. The glow flickered softly over his features, reflecting a calm as old as his race. His woman, who he introduced as Laksa, appeared from the increasing shadow, a bottle glinting in her hands. Nothing more than a blooded flare on the horizon remained of the day as Karshi and Chris sipped the potent alcohol, and they sat for a while in a comfortable silence, adapting to each other’s strangeness.
Soon Laksa and three shy children joined them around the fire. They gazed with awestruck eyes at Chris, a mixture of fear and wonder at confronting their first vision of a white man. But, reassured by Karshi, they soon came closer to explore his foreign features. They cautiously fingered the fluffy blond hair on his forearms and looked questioningly into his eyes. Chris felt a tingle run down his spine and along his arms, aware of the powerful impact his presence was having on them. When their curiosity was satisfied, they settled their loose limbs into the dust while their eyes glowed expectantly at Karshi from the dark.
Without a word of introduction, Karshi broke into a low grunting and shuffling, which Chris suspected would signal the start of an Azande tale. His exhausted body relaxed as the images stirred up before him. Using feet, hands and a versatile voice, Karshi half acted, half told the tale which, Chris thought, promised to be more entertaining than his university lectures.
“Many years ago,” began Karshi, “there was a green monkey who was very sly and far too lazy to clamber through the trees or crawl around the ground looking for his own food. So he thought up a plan as he sprawled along his branch with his hands behind his head.
“Later, as a squirrel came hopping by, the monkey pounced from his branch, landing on the squirrel’s back and frightening him half to death. ‘I come from the sky beyond to demand your help.’ growled the monkey. ‘Give me food or I’ll take you from the earth to the sky where you’ll stay forever.’
“The squirrel shook with fear but dragged himself and the monkey to a patch of ground where he scratched frantically, sending up a shower of nuts. The monkey caught them up with a grin and scampered back up his tree with his hands and jowls full, feeling very pleased with himself.
“The next day the monkey was feeling hungry again when a giant anteater shuffled by, sniffing its long, pointed nose into every hole it could find. All of a sudden the monkey landed on its back with a terrifying thud a gruff voice sounded: ‘Give me food or I’ll take you from the earth to the sky where you’ll stay forever.’
“The anteater almost fainted, but burrowed its long nose deep into a termite mound it had just found and pulled out a wriggling mass. The monkey grabbed a fistful of juicy termites and scuttled up the tree, cackling to himself at his good fortune.
“Some days later, the monkey lay drowsing on his favourite branch when the swish of a passing giraffe woke him. The monkey got angry at this disturbance and decided to scare the giraffe. With one huge leap, he clung around the neck of the giraffe, which swayed up and down under the weight. The giraffe’s teeth chattered in fear as he heard the monkey’s snarling threat, but then he loped off in search of food. The monkey relished the ride as he swung through the air without any effort. Soon the giraffe found a large palm tree, buried his head in the heart of it, and tore down a big bunch of dates. The monkey’s eyes lit up. He snatched the fruit, slid down the giraffe’s neck and hurried back to his tree.
“Just as he finished eating the dates, he saw Zembo, a man from our village, pass below the tree. Although his stomach was full, he couldn’t resist the fun of scaring someone, and leaped down on to Zembo’s shoulders. ‘I come from the sky beyond to demand your help.’ the monkey howled. ‘Give me food or I’ll take you from the earth to the sky where you’ll stay forever.’
“Zembo’s eyes opened wide with shock and his legs shook, but then he glanced down and saw the monkey’s tail curled around his waist. He saw through the trick and decided to teach the monkey a lesson. He took the monkey’s tail and passed it over his shoulder, saying ‘You are in luck, O Powerful One, as I am just now returning from a journey to collect exotic fruits. Here, try this.’
“The monkey greedily seized the strange fruit and dug his teeth into it. But as he did so he let out a scream and fell to the ground, where he died instantly of shock. Zembo was overcome with joy. He had in fact been hunting for food all day and soon set to building a big fire where he roasted the monkey and feasted until late into the night, when he fell into a deep sleep.
“The next day when Zembo arrived in his village, his neighbours were shocked to see a tail growing behind him. He told them of his adventure, but he never spoke again, and in the days that followed a green fur covered all his body until at last he went off on all fours to find a place to live in the trees. And since that time, we have never eaten green monkeys. We do not know which of them may be Zembo, who we would hate to kill and, besides, the green monkey never dies. Its soul eats out its eater.”
The children blinked, coming out of the story’s trance, and Chris also felt himself returning from a long distance. His heart fluttered in a dull panic, but his muscles were so weary from the day’s walk that within moments he was snoring by the fire’s embers, while Karshi carried his children inside the hut.
As Chris rolled over in the early dawn, he froze into a startled wakefulness. At first he thought it was a lump in the ground, but was horrified to touch a definite growth at the base of his spine. He dreaded to think there could be some truth in the Azande fable of the night before. But then, hadn’t he come here out of an instinctive belief that their magic worked for them and was a part of real life? He tried to calm himself with a logical explanation, but each time he touched the stump it seemed longer.
In a panic he swung his pack on his back and bolted down the path without a word of goodbye. He began with long strides but soon the thudding weight of the pack slowed him down. He felt his shoulders being dragged backwards and slumped forwards to relieve the ache, using his hands to help his feet propel him along. Fear shot through him as he entered the dense forest, with its strangling undergrowth, but he soon found that he could swing above it through the vines and lower branches.
He raced on for a while, then suddenly stopped, swinging back and forth on a vine and wondering what all the panic was about. He let his pack slide from his shoulders and crash into the bushes below; he didn’t need it any more. He clambered up to a comfortable nook among the branches, scratched the stubble around his jaw and gazed at the green fur sprouting along his knuckles. A single phrase echoed around his shrinking skull: Its soul eats out its eater…its soul eats out its eater…its soul eats out its eater…
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.