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Howler Monkeys

by Duke Miller

I write a letter to an unknown person. When I finish, I'll decide who the recipient will be. Maybe an old lover, who still thinks of me, or a distant relative, who tells people I'm a liar. Particularly that story about snorting coke with Liz Taylor. Never did like coke or Taylor.

It might take me a month to write the letter, because I want to make it worthwhile. I have a cut on my hand, which also slows progress. For the fun of it, I edge the letter with blood. If anyone really does read this letter, I'd like them to feel calm by what I describe, even the parts that might not seem so nice, like the blood on the pages of the letter.

Words are imperfect, yet they can be bullets or sighs when it comes to the way they affect us. Words can interfere with personal weather, that is what I want to say in the letter.

A secret inlet of the river, where the turtles sun themselves on limbs just beneath the water. Everything far from Paris, my last home. I used to run along the Seine and do push-ups and sit-ups in my apartment. I'd have arguments with women and tell people I was a stranger unto myself. Then I left Paris without saying goodbye and came here.

The inlet is still and quiet. I can be a root or a rock where the river takes refuge. The lack of sound is green and brown and clear. I swim here often, undisturbed, save for the turtles who are silent witnesses that I will call one day to vouch for me. The river current is barely visible and I can feel it under the water like a feminine dream circling my body, touching me with wisps of black hair. We all seem dead underwater. Our bodies grey and wrinkled, heatless, moving with the flow. The inlet is the sort of spot where very tiny creatures can rest and grow. My eye has been itching for a few days and I think about how microscopic worms can bore into the soft flesh of the eyeball and lay eggs or eat pieces of the cornea like slices of cheese pizza.

A person might go blind. Even if it's just one eye, that's a disadvantage. I decide to travel up river and visit Bruck or "Dr. Bruck," as he prefers. I've seen his box of "eye supplies" on a shelf, right next to a box of "tooth supplies". He isn't a real doctor and his name isn't Bruck. His grandfather was a German back in the days of "Where were you in '42?". The other people in his blood line are Indians. So for all practical purposes, he's an Indian with a doctor-sounding name and he thinks Bruck is okay for that.

He's used the name for about ten years and his reputation is sound among the locals. Once I asked him if that was the name of his grandfather. He shook his head, no. "So why not use your real relative?" I'd asked. He frowned at me and said, "He's too well-known."

"Hell, that's what you need Bruck. A name that'd spread through the jungle like army ants."

"No, no, it isn't good." He never told me his grandfather's name. It's probably one of the big ones. The grandfather surely is dead. Nobody cares, except maybe some Israelis and even they're losing interest in such things.

History is out here, but it's competing with the isolation, the mud, the rain, and the more recent editions of crime and revenge.

My little boat makes poor time. I do battle with the river, but soon enough, the clinic comes into sight. Bruck chose a spot a few kilometers away from the nearest village. He's pretty much alone out here, except for the surly Indian woman with scars on her face. Why he's living with her, I don't know. He could have picked any number of single Indian girls, up and down the river, but he took her. Sex is complicated, no doubt.

The clinic is an unholy miracle. How did it get here? How has it survived? The structure struggles to breathe as the green shades wrap around it like a boa constrictor. The colors smile as they absorb Bruck's vision into the terrible wetness and ghostly mist of the past 200,000 years.

The clinic is built of large, well-cured bamboo, hand sawed boards, roof thatch, different hues of paint, plastic sheets, chained monkeys, parrots with clipped wings, snakes in glass cases with everything surrounded by 55-gallon barrels full of rain water that serve as nighttime photos of the moon. The clinic seems more like a mystical painting then someone's business.

The main room, where Bruck works his magic, is outfitted with truck batteries and a generator, a propane stove, a surgical lamp painted to look like a snake, a reclining Holiday Inn pool chair, an old operating table, a set of jeweler's magnifying lenses, buckets of white plaster, surgical saws, probes, needles, thread, generic drugs, alcohol, gauze, tape and a few boxes of injectables. This last item is absolutely necessary. If one wants to be a real doctor in the jungle, one needs to be able to give shots. The bigger the needle, the better.

When I get to the clinic there's an Indian woman and her two kids waiting. The girl is about eight, while the little boy is maybe a one-year-old. He can barely walk, but he falls well and doesn't seem to mind when he takes a nose dive. Bruck has placed five chairs in a row on the porch where people wait. The woman and girl sit at one end and I take the last chair away from them. There are two chairs between me and the woman. The boy is crawling around on the floor, barefoot and shirtless. He finally notices me.

I begin to pat the seat of the chair with my hand. It sounds like a drummer's beat, as if I'm keeping time to a song. The kid on the floor scrunches up his face and there is an expression of curiosity. I stop and start again with the patting. He pulls himself up on his mother's leg and then starts to move sideways down the line of chairs. My patting continues. The boy slides toward my hand. Then he starts hitting the chairs with his free hand. There is no rhythm in his slapping and I can see his lungs moving rapidly through his emaciated rib cage. There are little scabs there as well.

With great effort he reaches my patting hand. I stop. Then he moves his hand toward mine and pushes it off the seat. I let him move my hand away. He then begins to beat the chair seat with his free hand. He is smiling. Still, there is no rhythm in his effort, just the banging of the hand, over and over again. I place my hand back on the seat and start to pat. His troubled face looks upward at me. Once again, he moves his hand and pushes mine off the seat, harder this time, with more confidence.

It's at this moment that I see the German need for Lebensraum, the idea of Manifest Destiny, the English Empire and every other bullshit expression of political theft that dictators, governments and tribal leaders use to justify the killing of people in order to take land and resources.

This kid is only one year old, yet he wants a kingdom of chair seats and he's not willing to allow me any room for my patting. He rests for a moment and then grabs my leg and smears slobber on my pants as he attempts to climb into my lap. The mother looks over and scoops him up into her arms. She walks to the edge of the porch. The rain comes, but I can't hear it because the kid is crying like one of the howler monkeys that plague me when I'm trying to take a nap in my hut. Don't get me wrong. It's a nice hut, but very much a part of the jungle, just like the crying kid, just like Bruck, just like the rain that I finally notice and it's falling hard.

Maybe Bruck will let me spend the night, the sorry motherfucker.


Duke Miller: "The writer's conference is over. Once again I didn't attend. Nobody missed me. There are three phases (some lasting years) to writing a book. The writing, the publishing, and then the selling. Writing is the easiest part and the selling is by far the worst. Just what this world needs, another book. Yet, I write books. The Howler Monkey is a bit of a new one. I guess writing gives me something to do, a way to escape what is happening to the world. When I write, hours become seconds and then the sun is down and I can have a beer and pet my dogs. We are all trapped inside, maybe writing is some sort of map taking us toward the sinking light. Could be. Thanks."

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