It arrived, somehow, while everyone was asleep. In the morning there it was, waiting: a real, wide-eyed monkey. It came with its own chair, a gold one, or rather wood painted gold, with some sort of crest on the back.
“It’s a rhesus,” said Quint, who was 9 and a fan of nature shows.
Her brother, Phil, two years younger, stared at the monkey. It stared back. “Who is it for?” he said. Phil intended to climb trees for a living. When they had first moved to the big house, men had come to take down a big tree in the yard that was threatening to come down on the roof and kill them all.
“I don’t know,” said Mother.
“Not me,” said Father. Was there a twinkle in his eye?
“Perhaps it’s all of ours,” said Mother.
At breakfast, the monkey made itself useful. It appeared to have been trained in its former life, and could do tricks like put bread in the toaster. Quint gave it one of her old dolls to hold. It looked pretty cute clutching it like that.
There were other gifts, which they opened around the tree. Father received a recording of an opera. The children got credit to use on apps, holiday-themed socks, and a board game about international trade set in a fantasy world with multiple oceans.
“We have to name it,” said Quint.
“It has a name,” said Father. “Zamutra. Or Zamora. Wait, what does it say on the box?”
“Not the game,” said Phil, “the monkey.”
“Ah,” said Father.
Phil handed the monkey the rest of his banana, which it had been eyeing. Using its tiny hands with remarkable grace, it unpeeled the fruit and stuck it in its mouth.
“We could call it Mr. Monkey,” offered Mother. She had a new necklace and a subscription to English Gardens, which would start in a few weeks.
“I like ‘Caesar’,”said Phil. “Because of his throne and all.”
They all agreed that Caesar was a fine name.
The monkey made a chuckling sound.
No holiday snow this year: a projected high of nearly 80 and probable thunderstorms. But the latest virus had been contained, and flooding had abated enough that cleanup crews could move in. Mother made cornbread. The sweet, rich scent of it baking was like a good memory.
The monkey explored the house. First, it opened all the cabinets. It hopped up on the kitchen table and then took a brief swing on the chandelier that hung above it. It opened the door onto the back deck and wandered outside.
“Do you think that’s safe?” asked Mother. Their last pet, a Lhasa Apso named Breadcrumb, had suffered an accident in the fall. His gravestone was in the far corner of the yard.
Quint watched the monkey through the window. She was in Gifted and Talented for math, but not for reading. She didn’t care. She was going to be an architect. But it wasn’t fair. She read as well as anyone else.
“Caesar wants to climb a tree,” said Phil. “That’s what monkeys do.”
The monkey just wandered around a bit, touching things as if to see if they were real, or perhaps to test their quality. By the holly tree, it squatted briefly.
“He’s doing his business,” said Phil.
“So he is,” said Father. “I like this monkey.”
The children played with Legos and then had screen time. Grandparents called and their faces were held up on tablets and talked to. The monkey returned to his chair. He seemed to like the ornaments on the tree, but he didn’t break any, or even remove them.
He just watched them dangling there like colorful, sparkly fruit.
In the afternoon, the family gathered to play the new game. Mother built the most bridges, but Quint had the most settlements, and her gold mine was highly productive. Father couldn’t figure out the rules. “It says here I can trade with countries that share a similar color,” he said. “What is a similar color?”
“Purple and red are similar,” said Quint.
“Purple and blue,” said Mother.
“Red and blue, then?” he asked.
Everyone just laughed.
“What’s that noise?” asked Quint. She was drinking watermelon cooler, her favorite.
In the living room, the monkey had gotten off his chair and was taking apart the fireplace, using a metal spike he’d found in the yard. Tink, tink. The bricks were old, and the mortar fell out easily. No one ever used the fireplace. At least once every fall, a bird became trapped in it and the family had to live with the sound of its flutter until the sound went away.
“Whose turn?” asked Mother. “I want to build another bridge.”
By dinnertime, the living room was a terrible mess, with bricks and brick dust everywhere. The monkey, whose face had been a lovely, clean pink this morning, the beardlike fur at the bottom making him appear somewhat Amish, was now quite sooty.
“Oh my,” said Father.
“Well, you knew he was up to something,” said Mother.
“That’s true. I just didn’t picture this, exactly.”
“We are not going to let it ruin Christmas,” said Mother.
“Of course not,” said Father. “How could it?”
“Are we having pizza?” asked Phil.
His sister punched him. “Roast beast, you idiot.”
“What about Caesar? He’s a vegetarian, I’ll bet you anything.”
The monkey continued working. Tink.
“You’ve got to admit, he’s dedicated,” said Father. “I wish you kids would work so hard on something.”
“You invited him in,” said Mother.
“Me? I did? I don’t remember it that way at all.”
“At least it’s not cold out,” said Quint. She picked up her doll from beside the golden chair, where the monkey had left it. “We could give it another banana.”
Phil brought one in. The monkey took it, peeled it so fast it was practically a magic trick, and then shoved the entire thing into its mouth.
“Aw,” said Quint. “How can you not like that?” She picked up a brick, put it down.
“Strong monkey,” said her dad. “I mean, you know, for his size.”
They finished the game. No one won, which was the way it was supposed to end. “This is vaguely unsatisfying,” said Phil.
When the dinner was ready, Mother lit candles. They thanked each other for being there. They thanked their lucky stars. They thanked the farmers, the factory workers, the military, and the guy who wrote those funny graphic novels the kids liked.
The meal was delicious: jacket potatoes, rutabaga mashed and mixed with horseradish, kale, and of course the beast, which was rare in the middle and nicely brown-to-almost burnt on the outside.
“Well, this is a Christmas to remember,” said Mother.
“Where do you think it came from?” asked Phil.
“Africa, dummy,” said Quint. “Or Asia. Or India. One of those countries.”
“I don’t mean that, dummy.”
“No one around here is a dummy,” said Father, who was suddenly feeling anxious. Who did you have to call to get a monkey removed from your house? Tink.
“Well, what did you mean?” Quint worried about where Caesar would sleep. She wanted him in her room, if only to deprive her brother of having the monkey to himself.
“Someone must have asked for him,” said their mother.
After ice cream and screens, it was jammas and teeth brushing. Everyone came back downstairs to look at Caesar.
“What the heck?” said Father. “What are those?”
Quint took a closer look. “Mummified birds,” she said. “They must have been stuck up there in the chimney.”
“Is the house going to fall down?” asked Mother, staring uncertainly at what had formerly been a perfectly nice fireplace, but was now a gaping hole. There had been a crèche on the mantelpiece, but the mantelpiece was gone. She couldn’t see the crèche anyplace. It was an exact replica of one they’d had in the house she’d grown up in. When she’d gotten married and moved into a house of her own, her mother had bought it for her so she’d feel comfortable. She’d planned to give it to her daughter someday.
The monkey had apparently climbed up the inside of the chimney and was now on the roof. They could hear him up there, and every now and then a bit of something fell down into the area where the fireplace had been.
“The house is fine,” Father reassured her. “Let’s all just go to bed. It’s been a wonderful day. A memorable day. Nothing too bad happened.”
“It’s supposed to rain,” said Phil.
“We can stand a bit of water.”
“I don’t want a monkey anymore,” said Phil.
“I don’t either,” said Quint. “I liked it better before.”
“All right, all right, we’ll consider this in the morning. I wonder how long they live?”
“Are we going to have to move?” asked Quint.
“No one is moving anyplace. Honestly, you people. Besides, where would we move to?”
There was a sound of distant thunder. Also the flappa-flappa of a copter. Breadcrumb, before his accident, had been terribly frightened of the storms. They had a little jacket they’d strap him into to calm him, embroidered with his name.
When the family was in bed, the monkey came back. He had the downstairs to himself now, and access to anything he could imagine. The contents of the refrigerator, the music, the furniture, the humidor where Father kept his Cohibas. He sat in his chair, which now felt too small. He did not love this family, but he was a little surprised that they did not love him. He preened in front of the hall mirror. He was bored. From up on the roof, he’d been able to see quite a bit, and already he was considering other places to explore. He hopped up and went into the kitchen to get a glass of cool water from the dispenser on the door of the fridge. The rumbling thunder didn’t bother him. He owned the thunder.
Does the Christmas list, say one issuing from the tender age of 6 or 7, bear closer inspection as one of the soul’s earliest calling cards?
Some lists have just one all-important item.
“If you can’t get me a monkey,” I warned my parents, “don’t get me anything.”
I had in mind Judy, the chimpanzee from “Daktari,” a favorite television show about an animal behavior center in East Africa. Judy hugged, kissed and held hands; she wore overalls and rompers. She was the sidekick who stole the show. Other cultural influences may have fed my obsession, specifically The Monkees with their pop hits “Steppin’ Stone” and “I’m a Believer.”
Christmas morning, as I strapped on my first Timex, my mother explained that she had consulted several pet stores. Monkeys could be mean and aggressive. They had to wear diapers and live in cages. Also, they were susceptible to colds and illness; winter in a drafty farmhouse in northern Vermont was sure to end in disaster. Their research closed the door, practically speaking, on my dream. I’d have to go it alone, marking time without the companionship of an adorable chimp.
Other Christmas lists are so padded that the only thing that really counts, that one item invested with the dreams of the blossoming self, gets overlooked.
Dear Santa and Mrs. Santa,
I Addie want to tell you my Chrtmas list. Scuter please. A Wiht Bord please with markers. Cooking suplies please. Black boots please size 1. Hard books with blank pages please. Can you bring me some extra rubber bands for my rainbow lume? Spy kit please comes with a walke talke no camra evry-thing else.
She, Addie, my youngest, had a favorite holiday movie, “Eloise at Christmastime.” Eloise, that mischievous hotel-dwelling pixie, opens up every one of her embarrassment of presents before Christmas then wraps them back up again to escape detection. She takes only what is of most pressing interest—the walkie-talkie from a spy kit. Armed with one of the receivers, she broadcasts an urgent message to her nanny, who hears Eloise’s cry for help coming from the other handset, still in the gift box under the tree. In this way she cleverly extracts herself from a sticky situation and goes on to save Christmas day.
I understood the spy kit had been lifted from Eloise’s Christmas list. I looked for spy kits at box stores and online but they all seemed cheap—a lot of money for a magnifying glass, fingerprint kit and walkie-talkies that probably wouldn’t work. I came up with a better plan. I’d skip the junk, the extravagant packaging, and get decent walkie-talkies at RadioShack, handsets that worked. I assumed Addie’s powers of discrimination were equal to my own, and that she would appreciate the utility.
Christmas Eve, she set up the Santa Tracker on an iPad by her bed. Like any good detective she was on the case, determined to catch him in action. She planned to follow his movement through the hemispheres as he flew ever closer, finally landing like a comet on our rooftop. If she were to drop off to sleep before he got to us, no problem—the prancing and pawing would surely awaken her. This would be her cue to spring from her bed and tear downstairs where she would catch him red-handed.
As usual, she slept through the clatter.
On Christmas morning I saw her scanning the boxes. She opened the larger boxes one by one, glanced briefly at the contents and turned hungry eyes back to the pile.
It dawned on me I’d forgot the walkie-talkies. I who had once wanted a monkey in just this way had miscalculated. I saw her attention narrow upon the remaining packages, into any one of which it would have been impossible to squeeze a spy kit. I saw hope leave and how she began to cope with her disappointment, working through complex emotions to arrive at the foregone conclusion that she was a lucky little girl and that it would be inappropriate to pitch a fit on Christmas morning.
When every last present had been unmasked, she said, bleakly, “I guess Santa forgot my spy kit.”
We all felt heavy in our hearts. I don’t know why I never executed Plan RadioShack —maybe I decided there were enough presents already, or maybe I just ran out of time.
I saw that going out the day after Christmas to get walkie-talkies was not going to fix anything. I remembered that present giving and opening often results in these sad, guilty feelings, bringing into play all kinds of uncomfortable invisibles. Who are we to want anything, we who are only sometimes nice, often naughty, and already have so much? And yet we do. We want to crack the case, figure everything out, star in our own lives. We want a chimp to hold our hand when the going gets tough, and we want to save Christmas Day.
Maybe the things that don’t show up under the tree have more lasting significance than those that do. The monkeys and spy kits live on inside us, shaping our choices and perceptions, perhaps even directing the action from below our awareness. When we’re drawn to study in East Africa; or become enchanted by the mythology of Hanuman, that half-man, half-monkey Hindu deity; or when we chance upon a tree full of monkeys along a deserted beach in Costa Rica, we stand arrested, intuiting that we have followed that early image, like so many stepping stones, right into our present life.
If there’s a clue to be found in my young teen’s present-day obsession with detective shows, perhaps we can say that the spy kit, too, is already spinning story, transmitting its mysterious messages from some far corridor of her imagination, like shortwave radio communications between inner and outer self. Perhaps we can say she got the walkie-talkies after all, and that they came with a lifetime warranty.