Monkey business

An unplanned adoption brings Jenny James more than she bargained for.

The first time we saw Cirilo, he was chained to a crate of Coca-Cola in a dark shop in the little market centre of Guayabal being fed on biscuits and chocolate.

The children gave me no peace from that moment until I gave them the exorbitant 50 dollars to rescue him.

When we returned to the farm, Cirilo took one look at me and leapt onto me, hanging desperately round my neck. Absolutely no persuasion, kind or rough, would loosen him. His instincts told him I was the Mama of the tribe and that was that. He would attack fiercely with tooth and nail and hideous screams anyone who tried to rescue me by unravelling him from my neck.

My life took a hellish swoop for the worse; can you imagine what it is like to dress, undress, go to the toilet, have a shower, go to bed and wake up with a baby maicero (maize-eating) monkey wrapped round your head, clinging painfully to your hair if an attempt were made to remove him? I had done nothing to gain his affections and did a lot to earn his rejection. In vain. My anger and distress would reach fever-pitch at times, especially on long journeys when he would shit and pee down my back. At night he would clamp himself over my face in bed with his funny little non-retractable penis uncomfortably near my mouth or nostrils. I guess his real mother wouldn’t have slept horizontally.

Most bizarre was the fact that I could never see him: everyone would make the most appropriate oohs and ahs but if I tried to pull him far enough off me to have a look, I lost another handful of hair. And if I dared look in a mirror, he would deafen me with hysterical screaming at the imagined intruder.

The weeks and months passed and slowly, painfully, Cirilo learnt to accept our nasty ways: like putting him in his own little compartment at night with a blanket with which he could cover himself when the howls of protest subsided. He also had to learn to sit at the table and not on it and to eat from his plate and not from ours.

He loved gardening. He would watch me carefully as I weeded and then copy me, scrabbling up every plant in sight. And he loved birds’ nests, but got into bad trouble for it: the parent birds dive-bombed him while he sat screeching on the roof, wrapping his arms around himself and staring pitifully at all his horrid, unsympathetic tribe who did nothing but kill themselves laughing.

As he grew older, Cirilo became increasingly accustomed to our rules: he knew that during the busiest working hours of morning he simply had to be tied up on a tree, not to keep him from running away but to prevent our ointments, medicines, ornaments and kitchen knives from theft.

Sometimes he escaped. Entering my room one day I did a double-take, not sure what I was looking at. It was very colourful. Every inch of my cabin had been turned into an elaborate spider’s web of knitting wools, with Cirilo pouncing around joyfully in the middle of it like a maniacal kitten.

In the afternoon, he knew it was official playtime. The moment I sat on my huge fallen tree-trunk in the sun, he would come bounding over, knowing that at last he could get all the affection he longed for. He would lie on his back in my lap while I tickled him and curl up, laughing. Yes, monkeys laugh, not with noise like we do, but with the same helplessness. At such times I forgot all the tension of having a delinquent child who had to be constantly watched. I loved Cirilo.

One day, the children decided they wanted to go to our other settlement, two days’ journey away. ‘Not without Cirilo,’ I said firmly. I wasn’t going to be left holding the baby.

Cirilo went. Forever. Shortly after reaching our farm, he disappeared. I have a gnawing feeling he was trying to get home. He would have died very quickly at the hands of larger monkeys or other forest carnivores. There is a painful Cirilo-sized hole in all of us.

And I nurse a secret. I know that the only way a baby monkey becomes available is when the mother is shot for food or crop protection. But if ever someone handed me one again, would I have the strength to say no?

Jenny James has lived and worked in the rainforest in Colombia since 1987. ~ End 4 ~

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