I would have much rather he kept his eyes on the road.
It wasn’t a busy road—in fact, it was near deserted, a strip of pavement carved out of the thick jungle of Ke Bang National Park. But every time he scanned the tops of the trees, his head would turn and linger and the motorbike would inevitably veer off into the opposite lane or towards the precipitous drop on the other side of the guardrail.
But when he pointed and stopped the bike, I knew he’d spotted what he’d been searching for. And really, it was all for us—the tour. Ben pulled up behind him, and we all stopped, all the bikes. Ben waved his arm, “Cut the engines!” he hissed, then pointed to the top of the trees, where my motorbike driver was also pointing.
“Black Langur monkeys.” The branches rustled as a dark figure leapt. “I didn’t think we’d see them today—you guys are lucky.”
We stood on the side of the highway, and Ben told us about the monkeys: it was rare to spot them, not just because it was a warm afternoon and they usually liked to eat in the morning, when it was still cool. They were afraid of people—although afraid might not be the right word. Cautious? Wizened? They were heavily poached, hunted, and they’d learned to be weary of people—to disappear into the dense black of their world when humans appeared, like pale, hairless ghosts, I imagined, or else demons from their dreams, whatever monkeys dream.
But they weren’t afraid that day. Or maybe they didn’t see us. They sat amid the branches, obscured by the branches that seemed to waver under their weight, as they picked and chewed leaves. We passed a pair of binoculars; I glimpsed the white tufts of their ancient-looking faces, the way monkeys have always looked to me like little wrinkled old people, nothing else. I remember seeing their fingers move over the leaves, though I couldn’t have, really—I couldn’t have possibly seen anything that small.
There were four or so of them, and we stood on the side of the road by our silent motorbikes and watched them—dark figures amid the dark—without speaking. The roads in the park were littered with a twitch of white butterflies; I’d thought of what Alicia had said, in Laos, as some tourist had tried in vain to photograph a swarm of them:
“You know, it’s funny—people think butterflies are really sweet and pretty. But they eat garbage—they’re attracted to trash and shit—so when you see them, you know something’s rotting.”
I’d paused, smiled my sly smile. “So, basically, butterflies are my dating spirit animal.”
And we’d laughed, and I’d thought about that, tried to tell one of the kids on the tour, earlier that day as he’d circled in a swarm of them and tried to take a picture: “You know what I learned? That butterflies eat shit.” And he hadn’t seemed to have heard me, or he pretended not to, or he gave one of those non-committal “hmmm”s and remained focused on trying to document them, capture them, which he eventually announced he couldn’t do.
And the butterflies moved around us on the roadside now, but we didn’t pay them any mind; we were watching the dark monkeys, the Langurs with their white tufts. And it seemed, for a few fleeting moments, like they did actually see us, and more than that, were watching us. One sat perched near the top of the trees, facing us, while the others ate—like he was on guard, the watchman, and it would make sense if he was.
And it sounds crazy, but I swear I could feel their eyes—black eyes, small eyes, peering out at us from whatever weird, dark world they were from. I swear they saw us, really saw us, with a gaze that wasn’t pleading or desperate or tragic or even noble—just a long, heavy stare. Naked and quiet and insistent.
I sat on the back porch, the wood-rotting slant of it, with a steaming cup of coffee, a smoking American Spirit and 10 minutes to “power relax” before I had to leave for work. It was almost exactly one month later, and I was back home.
My phone dinged; it was a text from Emily, my sister-in-law. “Zaia has a question for Alicia: she’s wondering where the Academy of Sciences gets their animals.” Alicia works as a specimen preparator (aka: taxidermist) at the Academy of Sciences, and has become the resident answerer for all my niece’s animal-related questions.
I was pretty sure I knew; I remembered Alicia saying they were all born into captivity, or else were orphans—but in any case, they didn’t know how to be in the wild. But more than that, they didn’t know to be afraid of humans, hadn’t learned to be afraid. Or not afraid, but to keep their distance—that we lived in different worlds, separated by a skinny strip of pavement, and that to cross over was dangerous for either one of us.
And I thought suddenly of the Black Langur monkeys. Or, more precisely, I thought of their black figures and their stare, the way their stare felt on my skin. The big green leaves on the tree rattled in the yard, and I pictured, in some tangled wilderness, the Black Langur monkeys inside myself. I felt their silent, insistent stare.
“Not sure,” I texted back. “But we’re hanging tomorrow, so I’ll ask and get back to you.”
I chugged my coffee and stood up. It was time to go to work.