I was eight when the monkey came. I rushed home from school, dying to get out of my blue, itchy, starched uniform. Home was above the store. Taking the steps two at a time, I heard the violent clanging of chains, a loud screech; and the monkey lunged at me, bared teeth inches from my face. Whoosh! His hand tried to grab me. I cringed and scraped the wall with my nails.
"Mama!" I screamed. The cashier came running, grabbed hold of the chain, yanked the monkey back onto its perch and said over the loud screeching, "Go, Sabing, go. He can’t reach you. He’s your mother’s new pet."
I choked. Mama hadn’t told me I would be coming home to a monkey on the stairs.
I was afraid. I refused to go up or down unless someone went with me and when the store was teeming with customers I had to wait. The monkey was just a hand’s breath short of reaching me. Clutching a salesgirl’s hand, I hugged the far wall as my feet raced against each other on the stairs. I could feel Mama’s eyes on me every time.
Mama had had pets before: guard dogs she talked to early in the morning before starting work, goats that gave fresh milk, a chicken that ended up in the family pot. But never a monkey.
I liked going down to the store after supper, sitting across from Mama at the huge desk strewn with papers. Mountains that dwindled into hills until they ended up in out-trays, in-trays and to-be-done trays. I played quietly, watching Mama often.
She was bent over the desk, the lamp throwing a bright white light on pink slips, yellow invoices and blue inventory sheets. Her glasses perched on the edge of her nose, the right index finger thrusting the glasses back up as they slipped, wisps of greying hair falling over her forehead, fingers flying on the black abacus.
One night I went downstairs to be with Mama as usual. I grasped the maid’s hand, steeling myself for the screech, the jangling, the whoosh but … silence. I looked up. No monkey! Running into the store, I stopped and saw the monkey on a new perch, my mother’s right shoulder. It raised its head slowly and fixed me with its gaze, gleaming brown eyes, shiny like marbles. The lips opened wide, yellow teeth, a quiet menacing grin. Its hands rifled through Mama’s hair, picking, choosing, eating. I wondered what. She kept on working, the monkey silently resting one hand on her head as he shifted from one shoulder to the other. Finally, he sat still, a hand on her shoulder, the other on the nape of her neck. I backed away. Mama looked up. A puzzled and irritated "What’s wrong with you?"
I pointed to the monkey.
"Stop it, Sabing. How many times do I have to tell you he’s harmless. He’s just a baby."
She gave a quick pat on the hand-foot on her shoulder and then back to her papers. I turned and silently went up the stairs, putting my foot squarely on the middle of each step.
The next night I stayed in my room after supper, and the next night and the next…
A few days later, I was clinging to the cashier’s hand, heart thudding.
"Inday, go back to the cash register. From now on, Sabing will go up and down the stairs by herself."
I stared at Mama and felt cold. I looked up and saw the monkey crouched, ready to spring.
"Ma, please. I…"
"No, " steel in the voice, "Go…up… the stairs… NOW."
I looked up at Inday; she stared at the cash register.
I took a step, then felt the warm trickle between my legs. My skirt was wet, my socks, my shoes. I heard Mama’s chair scrape backwards, hit the wall, the swoosh swoosh of the chair turning. She grabbed my arm and dragged me to the first step, beneath the eyes gleaming, shiny like marbles.
The hissed "Go" and she shoved me up the stairs. I stumbled and hit my shin against the first step, my face pressed against the skirt, the stench of urine overpowering. I gagged, pushed myself up and ran up to the bathroom.
The next day, Inday saw me standing at the top of the stairs and quietly, she came, held my hand and led me downstairs. The monkey was asleep.
Coming home from school, I memorized the cracks on the cement floor as each step brought me closer to the stairs. I took a deep breath. Then I saw. The marks where the nails had been for the perch. Then I heard. Silence.
I rushed back towards Mama, hair flying, arms reaching, wet eyes unseeing. My face on her neck, at last. I looked up. Her eyes were gleaming, shiny like marbles.