I've been working on this "short" story for a year. Even in the Accra airport, I began to write this down in notebooks, along with the almost overwhelming amount of emotional and physical information I had taken in over the two weeks.
I can't share everything with you here. But I did want to give you a little taste.
Just for context, here's the blurb:
Somewhere between rekindling a trans-atlantic romance and calling it quits for good, a couple tries a new locale on holiday in Ghana’s Cape Coast. At an isolated nature reserve, an eccentric Dutch couple reveals more than anyone bargained for about our biological evolution when we choose to stay together.
And here is the text! A nice non-emotional, yet meatier middle chunk of
Forty-five minutes later, they were still in the car on the way to the monkey reserve that was “right up the road.”
Casey had underestimated how big Ghana was. Almost everything they said was "close" ended up being an hour drive at least. Maybe it was all the extra police stops you had to make. Every few miles, the police in navy and light blue camo (She couldn’t quite see the point in that particular camo) would pull over every car and inspect. Gordon would warn her each time to hide any electronics. (“They’ll take it. They’ll find a reason to take it.”)
Or maybe everything took so long because-- with the exception of the George W. Bush Expressway, ironically enough, both “The Best Road in All of Africa,” but also simply the best road in all of Africa-- the roads were all so bad.
In LA, the roads always failed at the edges. In Ghana, every road seemed to have huge, craggy chunks pulled up in the middle that had to be sharply swerved around—a kind of alien asphalt phlegm that Ghana kept trying to cough up. The center literally would not hold.
“We’re here,” said Toufiq. “I think.”
“It doesn’t look like much, does it?” Gordon said.
Most other African preserves Casey had seen were still eerily American. She’d leafed through glossy, thick-papered booklets in the old days of Gordon and Casey, in his flat in Holloway Road, after he’d return from Tanzania or Kenya. Playgrounds for rich voyeurs, or Disneyland-esque in their desire to sell patrons concessions and souvenirs. But Mrs. Doolittle’s Monkey & Wildlife Preserve looked more like a bombed out settlement compound. The post-apocalyptic efforts to rebuild human community.
There were several crumbling cinderblock barracks with no roofs off to one side. Plants had come along to reclaim the area.
There were no other cars and no one was around.
One sign said VERBOTEN. Another sign had glued actual digital cameras and cell phones with big red slashes through them warning that photography was prohibited.
“Surely not the most economical way to express that rule,” Gordon said.
“Maybe they were actually confiscated from rebel tourists and placed here as a warning to those who dare go against the rule of law—like the heads on the spikes of London bridge.”
“I wonder if it’s closed,” Gordon said, to neither Casey nor Toufiq in particular.
Then a hunched over teenager ambled towards them, batting trash on the ground with a stick he carried.
“Alo. I am Barnaby. Welcome to Kakum Monkey Sanctuary. I will guide you.”
“Hold on,” said Gordon. “What’s the entrance fee?”
“Forty cedis each.”
“What about my guide?”
Toufiq showed the boy his makeshift “tour guide badge.”
Gordon went for his wallet, but the teenager stopped him.
“Later. You give to Mr. Denis. At the end.”
As they made their way up the hill to the official start of the tour, another car pulled up with additional tourists. Casey immediately heard the harsh nasal of her own American accent in its worst form: the teenage girl. There were several of them. A plump blonde girl, in clothes that were much too tight; a sensible-seeming Asian girl; a brunette with frizzy hair and ill-fitting glasses; and an elderly Australian man with one of the worst cases of Diabetes legs Casey had ever seen.
Casey kept turning around to partake in their strange, reluctant crew. None of them seemed to be in charge. Not one of them gave any indication that they wanted to be there. The chubby one kept whining with all the vocal fry of a Kardashian.
“Eeeeeew, I don’t even like monkeys,” she said more than once.
No one in her party commented on her protests, but Gordon couldn’t let the moment go unremarked upon.
“Bit of a whinger. Unfortunately, she sounds like one of your lot, there Case.”
“Today, like many days while I’m abroad, dear Gordon, I am ashamed of my countrymen.”
“Teen. Agers,” said Toufiq shaking his head. “They’re terrible people everywhere you go.”
Barnaby did not appear offended by the comment.
Toufiq had never left Ghana, but he seemed to have an authority worth taking seriously. It helped that she agreed to begin with... and that he often used that authority to stick up for her.
The guards from Kakum National Park were there, just as they’d promised. They were joined by a sunburnt, red-eyed blonde man in his forties who she guessed was Denis. All four men lounged in deck chairs that leaned against a colorful, but crumbling corrugated steel and concrete shack and they were already several large bottles of Star beer into their afternoon. Gordon nodded to the guard who’d suggested this place.
A woman like a frayed knot emerged from the shack. There was no way this was not Alliette. She looked disoriented and she scratched what was left of her baby bird feather hair like she might find something in it. She had the gaunt, leathery arms of a smoker-- nicotine legs-- Casey had always called them, and the paunchy tummy of a drinker.
Aliette waved to the group and shooed them up the hill.
“Go and then come have some beers with us! Tell us all your stories!” she called to them.
Barnaby lead them up the start of the next hill before stopping. The motley gang of teenagers and their beleaguerred old man had decided to go for it after all. The chubby blonde wore flip flops along with her sausage-casing style workout clothing, which didn’t seem to Casey at all like a good idea. Maybe a monkey would bite off one of her toes. That would really put Gordon in a better mood.
They all set off up, slip-sliding up the first hill until they came to a deep pit of crocodiles. Gordon declined to, but Casey pet one, on the head where she thought he’d have a hard time getting at her to bite.
“Well, aren’t you brave. You’ll be eaten. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“That will be five cedis,” said Barnaby once she was done petting the rough skin.
“Gordon, why didn’t you tell me it cost money? I assumed it would be part of the ticket.”
“I told you you’d be eaten alive, didn’t I? It’s good for you to learn things for yourself, Brave Girl.”
At the top of another ridge, the monkey cages spread out in long rows. It reminded Casey of sad concentration camps in Holocaust movies-- with long, skinny, spindly fingers poking out from cages and the cries somewhere between human and animal.
Barnaby gathered himself with a look of dire consequence.
“Now, I must say something very important, so you must all listen to me. It is imperative that you take no pictures of these monkeys. They are only teenagers.”
Gordon seemed annoyed. “What purpose does that serve? Why aren’t we allowed to take photos? There’s no flash to startle them. It’s broad daylight.”
“There are no photos allowed because due to the high tech of cameras in this modern day, you might make a commercial calendar of our monkeys and sell. That would limit the sales of our own calendars. So it’s not allowed. Very serious.”
Gordon, Toufiq and Casey all looked at each other in shared mockery of the silly rule.
Casey thought back to her brief 32 hours in Rome, just before she’d left the UK. They desperately pleaded with the tourists in the Vatican to refrain from photographing the Sistine Chapel. And she’d been prepared to honor that, even though iphone photos with the flash off clearly had no effect on anything. But the instant she stepped in, literally everyone was snapping away. And not just sans flash. It was full on rebellion. Flashes going off everywhere. It was almost blinding. Not one guard flinched. Eventually, Casey had caved to the dam break of decorum and came home with her own pictures of the Sistine. It made her sad for the times she lived in, but she did it. She kept her flash off though.
And now, in Africa, with no priceless art on the line, just the scorn of an off-kilter African boy, she waited until Barnaby rounded corners for the next attraction and snapped picture after picture. She loved they way the monkeys mugged for the camera. They were so expressive. She loved the shadows of the cage rungs reminding her that this both really was and really was not Africa.
As they walked along the rows of snake and monkey cages, Barnaby explained a bit about each one. But Casey had a hard time focusing on anything other than what she could only guess was a disaster waiting to happen. Barnaby still had his stick and he clanged in along each cage’s bars. Sometimes it seemed out of boredom, and other times, for the very purpose of agitating the animals. He raked it along the cage of the black mamba and hissed at it, like a little child psychopath-- the star of The Bad Seed 2: SubSahara. The mamba hissed right back.
“So, where are you from, Barnaby?” Gordon asked.
“I am from the North. Small village.”
Casey already knew about the North’s character from Toufiq’s stories of wilderness, Muslim prevalence, and what remained of tribal conflicts. Toufiq joined the conversation now, asking Barnaby some questions in Dagbane, but never revealing the answers.
“What brought you to Kakum?” Gordon continued.
“All my family was killed.”
Gordon and Casey shared a look. She was sure there was a lot to unravel about that story, but was afraid to ask.
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Barnaby,” said Gordon.
The kid shrugged.
“Denis and Alliette took me in.”
Toufiq leaned into Casey. “That boy would murder us in our sleep if he got the chance.”
She wondered what Barnaby and Toufiq had said in their brief exchange. Toufiq nodded again as if to emphasize.
At the last of the monkey cages, they came up on one with bright blue testicles.
“This is Ofufu,” said Barnaby, rattling the cage. “Wake up!” he shouted, even though the monkey was awake and alert, smiling at them lewdly like a human in a porn. Ofufu knew. He knew what he had going on and he was proud of it.
“Just... NUCULAR,” beamed Gordon. His voice went up an octave he was so pleased with this monkey. “I just can’t believe that’s natural. I bet she gets a brush out here and paints them. She must!”
Something about tourism always seemed to physically transform Gordon into his least cool self.
Sometimes, he could take her breath away he was so dashing. The way his hair swept so softly and effortlessly. The way he looked in a kilt. He was the kind of man who was always turning up at parties in Edinburgh with a bottle of amazing champagne. No matter the occasion-- great Champagne. That was the character detail she always chose to use when describing him. It was so much more evocative that just dashing...or just posh.
But in a polo shirt and cargo pants, a camera slung over his neck, all 6 feet four inches of him got bent with a backwards gravity towards gawky teenage-dom. His gait and his posture changed. He slouched from the weight and force of his amazing camera.
His humor, needless to say, especially reverted to that of a fifteen year old boy.
The blue balls joke went on, but grew tedious for Casey. She wandered away from everyone. Everyone had become a much smaller group. All but the shrewd Asian girl had fallen off somewhere along the hill. She was thankful for the peace.
Here on the crest of the preserve was part canteen, part abandoned fine dining experiment. A stripped and gutted stainless steel kitchen hut stood in front of beautiful natural wood dining tables-- just slices of tree trunks, glazed and pristine even, with tree trunk stumps as stools. Each of these tables (that some Danish Modern fanatic in LA would have paid thousands for) had an elegant gold “Reserved” sign. Casey’s heart wanted to break. Reserved for what?
Without much ceremony, the tour was over. Barnaby disappeared without Casey even noticing. Gordon and Toufiq had started down the hill again. Only the Asian girl lingered at the top with her.
“What a waste,” the girl said, gesturing towards the restaurant, before heading away herself.
When Casey finally reached the bottom, Alliette and Denis were both working their charm on Gordon and Toufiq, trying to get them to sit a while and drink. Toufiq, bashful, explained that he did not drink because of his faith. Gordon was adept at declining invitations, like all British aristos and Alliette, for her part, barely noticed the brush off and pressed on.
“Tell me, young man, what do you think of our country?”
“YOUR country?” Gordon, incredulous again.
“Lived here for fifteen years. Came on holiday from Eindhoven and decided never to leave. It’s much more livable here than people give it credit for, you know.”
“I do know. I live here.”
“Oh well, then. Where do you live?”
“In Accra. In the Cantonments.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, I hate Accra!The dust! The people! Ah well, but I assume you have something to do with government.”
“I do, I suppose.”
“I need room to build my own life,” she said, gesturing all around. “I had so many, and still have so many plans for this place. I wanted to do some lovely guest cottages-- that’s what you see at the very bottom of the hill when you first arrive. But of course the termites put a stop to that.”
Casey listened, confused. She wasn’t aware that termites had any interest in concrete. She wished that Gordon hadn’t spoken for them both when he turned down the beer. She wouldn’t have minded getting drunk at the moment.
“But my real jewel will be the restaurant. Maybe you saw the start of it at the top. I always wanted a real authentic gourmet Dutch cuisine restaurant here. I am not a great cook, but I miss Dutch food. I would get a chef from home and everyone on Cape Coast would come. We were nearly there, but then we ran out of money. We heard about this guy here,” she said gesturing to the monkey perched on her shoulder. “This is Ebi. He’s just a teenager, so he’s not the best behaved, but we paid a fortune for him.”
“He is worth every penny,” yelled Denis, emerging from their shack. “You should pet him. You all should.”
Gordon declined again. But Casey had been looking forward to this.
“You’re very brave, Casey,” Gordon said to her again.
“Gordon, stop calling her brave like brave is an insult.” Toufiq shook his head and held Casey’s belongings for her while she climbed into the garden area with trees and monkeys in collars with cords that kept them anchored to the trees. Little metal leashes.
The one she pet seemed very calm and had soft fur. He climbed into her lap and let Casey pet the crown of his little head, like a kitten.
With all the circus around her, Casey only now noticed that such domestic animals roamed here too. But Mrs. Doolittle’s was a place where normal household pets were relegated to nearly inhuman neglect. The forlorn dog, asleep in the shade against the shed-- sickly and practicing some zen form of patience while insects buzzed near his nose and crusty half-shut eyes. Forsaken for his ordinariness. At least there was only one of him. Like seemingly everywhere in Ghana, Mrs. Doolittle’s had no less than fifteen mangey orange cats, each with their own sad deformity. Some had shredded ears, some missing eyes, or just that smell of near death that cats seemed to get.
Casey had always really liked little marmalade cats. Identified with them in some way. But these looked like scraps of paper that’d been hastily torn. An idea you jotted down in a bar. Not something you keep.
Alliette seemed to sense Casey’s dismay.
“All my life, I want an orange male cat. But they keep bringing me these females! That’s why there’s so many.”
They who? And surely there must be a male involved somewhere...
“They’re... cute...” Casey said.
“Do you want to take one home? Here is this one. Or...this one? Take as many as you like.”
Right. US Customs was sure to want the next African outbreak to come from a diseased marmalade kitten from the dirges of Ghanaian monkey reserves. A super deadly strain of something resulting from a mix of cat dander and monkey venom. It sounded like a script she’d been pitched once. Or a film she’d already seen.
“Would you like to see the rest?” Asked Denis. “Let me show you our home.” For once, Gordon was brave enough to join them.
Inside looked like a Depression era farmhouse. A dirty apron sink harbored a scattering of used dishes. Gaps in the wooden plank walls allowed beams of sunlight to stream in. A checkered table cloth gave cover to a small wobbly table. An old Smaug refrigerator hummed. It smelled like layers and layers of old beer. Like a pub in Texas Casey had once bartended when she was twenty-one.
Past the sectioned off kitchen, the walls of floor to ceiling cages began, mingled with floor to ceiling shelving units of curiosities and crap, like an old movie prop locker. They snaked through the shelves, looking at the food for the animals, stray pieces of hardware, and their Mrs. Doolittle merchandise (Postcards! Calendars! Warped and sun-bleached. “Thank God we won’t be cutting into their business,” Gordon whispered in her ear.)
“Miss, Make sure you watch those sunglasses on your head.” Berg here will snatch them off you faster than you can imagine. And you will not get them back.”
Casey stashed the glasses in the front pocket of her satchel.
“You have to expect a certain amount of loss when you spend as much time with them as we do. They are our babies and they’re not really fully grown-- they are just teenagers-- so they can’t be held responsible for their actions.”
Toufiq caught Casey’s eye and mouthed “Teen. Agers.”
“Yes, I have family trinkets that have been missing for years. We don’t keep anything around here we’re not prepared to lose. Nothing is safe.”
“Where do you sleep?” Casey asked.
“Just there.” He pointed to a cantilevered mat and pillows in the corner she hadn’t noticed before.
“Where do these guys sleep?”
“Berg here, and Ebi sleep in the bed with us. They’re quite loving.”
“Yes,” said Gordon, eyeing a missing chunk of Denis’s ear, “Looks that way.”
“Oh I have all kinds of injuries from these guys over the years. Here, on my hand.” He pointed to the missing section of skin connecting the base of the thumb to the index finger. “And this finger here has no tip anymore. My ear, of course, though that was ages ago. And this guy over here ruined the tattoo I got on my twenty-first birthday. Just took a bite right out of it.”
From outside, they heard Alliette scream.
“Denis, Denis, come help m--”
and then a thud.
All four of them rushed out the door into the yard, where Aliette was stumbling around in the dirt near the trees with a can of beer in her hands. Ebi was noisy and jumped from Alliette’s shoulders up the branches.
“He knocked my head--”
Ebi jumped back down to Alliette’s shoulder and lunged for her beer. As Alliette was flailing around, she tripped a little on the slack from Ebi’s metal cable leash, which made it even easier for Ebi to go straight for Alliette’s face. In a way, she both fell and was pushed. But the sound of her sad little balding skull hitting the tree was chilling.
For a minute, she looked dazed like she might drop to the ground, where Ebi was smugly enjoying his beer. But then she just called out.
“Denis, I think Ebi gave me a concussion. Please get me a new beer. Glass bottle so no one can take it.”
The guards were passed out drunk in their chairs, impervious to the drama.
Denis returned with a fresh beer from the fridge and Aliette plopped down in a chair as if nothing had happened.
“Don’t you think you should see a doctor? Or at least avoid alcohol with that head injury?” Gordon said.
Denis took a long drag from his cigarette and passed the pack over to his wife. His long, talon index finger curled over it and he slurped the smoke in like she’d seen villains do in the movies. There was something sexual in it-- the way a child molester is sexual.
“Happens all the time.” Denis said. “Nothing to alarm yourself over.”
His bloodshot eyes floated skywards, letting go of the whole thing.
Aliette propped her spindly, leathery legs up on a planter.
“We don’t know that I have a head injury. Could be nothing. Sometimes it’s a concussion, sometimes it’s not.”
© 2015 Ryann L. Ferguson
© 2015 Ryann L. Ferguson