The day Granddad died, I picked up a small statue of three monkeys joined at their sides and slipped it into my pocket. I don’t remember ever having seen it at his house until I wandered through the newly vacant rooms in the failing sunlight that evening. The monkeys were positioned with their hands over eyes, ears, and mouth, one each. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That command did not impart any particular insight or comfort then. Merely, I needed something to hold, something to work my fingers across as I ventured into this new world I had not known before. A world where I had no Granddad, where accidental tragedy could strike for no reason, not as a punishment for something I had done or said, just as an act of the universe. Not an act, even, as the universe has no intent, only a flow of 10,000 things. I worked my fingers raw over the next couple of years rubbing those monkeys in my pocket. I felt a visceral relief from having a physical pinpoint for the ache of my loss, a relief that no other mouth, words, or arms offered. Still, I thought little about what they might be saying to me.
After a while, the acute pain drifted away from my daily life. No longer did I need the physicality of worry stones or talismans. The monkeys lived in my jewelry box for a long time. When we bought a printer’s tray from a thrift store and turned it into a knick-knack shelf, I dug them out and placed them in a tiny compartment for display. For so long I had forgotten about their existence, deaf to their silent message.
Last November, when Malik showed up at our kitchen table to do his homework, mountains of homework that would hopefully salvage the first semester of his senior year, the memory of their soothing grooves came flooding back, first to my fingers and then to my consciousness. His is not my story to tell, but suffice it to say that he had more to worry about on the tip of his pinky finger than I have had in all of my years. Something in my core being recognized something in his core being, call it a disbelief in what is called the order of things when clearly there is no order. Before taking him back to where he was staying, I tore the house apart looking for those monkeys, forgetting that they had been watching me from their perch. Perhaps they heard my desperation and beckoned me from the the shelf. I rescued them and pressed them into his hand before he got out of the car. Neither he nor I officially believe in the magical powers of objects, but I told him that these monkeys had comforted me during a time of great distress, a time when I could not understand the mysteries of the cosmos but desperately wanted to. For what it was worth, I could sense that he needed some kind of similar comfort.
His dream, his vision for his life, did not seem to match what the universe had laid out in front of him. It was speaking and showing him its evil ways, or at least its most disagreeable ways. Despite this, he seemed to avoid speaking any evil about his future. I think now the axiom must be a kind of conditional statement lost in the truncated rhythm of the command. If we can keep from listening to the evil around us, keep from seeing life as evil, then we will not speak evil into existence. What we allow ourselves to perceive and receive will directly impact what we generate. Concentrating on disagreeable things will cause us to continue the production of disagreeable things. But if we can protect ourselves from the evils around us, that is where our hope resides. And no one can protect us but ourselves, not even the monkeys. They serve only as a reminder that we can, even in the midst of great destruction and misfortune, become agents of our own fate through intentional action.
In Everything is Illuminated, Lista is the sole survivor and keeper of the memories and artifacts of a community destroyed by Nazi soldiers. When a young man comes looking for answers about his grandparents’ past, she tells Jonathan that the buried engagement ring, “does not exist for you. You exist for the ring. The ring is not in case of you. You are in case of the ring.” That scene has haunted me, needling at my understanding, for years. I think I am coming to an understanding of her words. The monkeys did not exist for me to find them, but I exist to learn from them and move them to their next place in this world. Malik exists to be a vessel of this same idea, and already he is moving the monkeys.
An 18-year-old young man loses many things. Keys, phone chargers, innocence, papers. But when we arrived at the tiny dorm room in Iowa that will be his home for the summer, Malik fished around in his pocket, pulled out those monkeys, and balanced them on top of his mini fridge. I hope they remind him to stay anchored to a reality where he is in charge, if not of the events that happen around him, at least of his interaction with and reaction to those events. Seeing, hearing, and speaking beauty and wonder into this world, we will prevail.