Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Monkey House - Flash Fiction

Watery sunlight has tricked me into thinking that's it's warmer outside than it is.  A Beaux-Arts structure nearby beckons as respite from the winter cold; as I close in upon it, I feel the familiar nausea and excitement that always heralds a collision between past and present.  Sure enough, there is a flash of movement in the tree to my right, another on the roof.  A woman in a long dress is sitting on a bench, oblivious to the fact that a gorilla is calmly sitting a few feet away, watching the people go by.

Glancing upward, the stone statuary against the sky tells me that it is the Monkey House.  My mother has never forgotten that a childhood trip to a zoo resulted in my vomiting during a visit to the primate house due to the smell.  Any time a room was hot, stuffy and odorous, she responded with "it smells like the monkey house in here".  I enter anyway.

Inside there are modern glassed-in enclosures with capuchins, squirrel monkeys and other smaller species.  The days of housing large primates in tiny enclosures are, fortunately, in the past. The children in front of me are disappointed, having expected to see chimpanzees up close.  Their harried escort threatens to turn them over to the zoo.

"They don't put people in cages," the youngster replied with a sneer.

An older bystander cleared his throat.  "Actually, they once did. Back at the turn of the century, the zoo displayed a pygmy named Ota Benda for a couple of days, along with an orangutan."

The boy looked as him open-mouthed, then to the man I took to be his father, who shrugged. "Things were different back then. Poor people, blacks, immigrants - they were treated like animals. Because they didn't think that they had souls."

I've trained my senses to categorize, disregard or enhance certain input.  Breathing deeply, I ignore the odors of sweat, clothing, popcorn and disinfectant;  underneath is what I am waiting for, the pure smell of age.  There are places in this world where time is as flimsy as cellophane wrap and where joy, fear and sadness permeate the very stones.  Unknowingly we breathe in the molecules of past experience and call it nostalgia.

Once outside, I remove my precious camera from its bag.  One day, they say that film will be gone forever, but somehow when I need it, I can always find it.  The pictures that I take will reveal, once and for all, whether this is a Special Place. Most of my photographs are returned from the lab colored in the ordinary manner, but once in a while a building or object will appear in a tea-colored sepia.

There is no rational explanation for it.

The woman and the gorilla, who I now know is Makoko , are still at their posts;  but although they appear in the viewfinder, I know that they will not be captured. Denizens of bygone eras seldom are, at least not by me.

I never choose these spots; they choose me, for whatever reason.

It's time for me to leave, although a barking sea lion is calling somewhere in the park for more attention, more applause, more fish. In the photograph, his eyes will appear liquid brown, the water blue.

I will not be back again.

The Monkey House is now closed.

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Author's note: While this is a work of fiction (my first attempt at magical realism), the following links will lead you to articles concerning the 1906 exhibition of Ota Benga and the death of Makoko as well as info on the Bronx Zoo. The Monkey House recently closed but is a Historical Landmark and therefore will probably be repurposed.

Ota Benga on Wikipedia 

The Death of Makoko the Gorilla

Bronx Zoo, NYC


  1. Wow...I really, really liked this piece, Li. "Unknowingly we breathe in the molecules of past experience and call it nostalgia."...what a great line, amongst other.

    You know what I'll say: I want more of this character's voice. Great job.

    1. Glad you liked it! Thought I'd try something new again :-)

  2. Cool story, Li. I love the idea of the sepia photos finding the mc.

    1. It would be cool to have such a magical camera, wouldn't it?

  3. Love this! So vivid, Lisa. And watery sunshine in such a trickster.

    1. Thank you Talli :-) Yes, I have a tendency to underestimate the weather sometimes!

  4. I like the mix of sensual details you use to evoke the Monkey House.

    1. Thanks Aidan - I was aiming for the "show not tell" approach :-)