Read This and Be Smarter

‘The Baboon’s Keeper’

by Julia Darling

Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.

Julia Darling was an English dramatist, poet, and novelist. She wrote ‘The Baboon’s Keeper’ after an extended trip to Australia. Julia Darling united humanity, creativity and health in her poetry, prose and plays. Her light continues to shine through a wonderfully witty, inventive and energetic body of work, from her powerful short stories, provocative plays for theatre and uplifting poems to her poignant radio plays and enchanting novels. 

‘The Baboon’s Keeper’ was published in Westerly 40.2, Winter 1995.

The baboon is square-jawed and shiny-red-bottomed and swings from his arms, screaming. His cage rusts around him. It is patched with twisted wire. He calls the other monkeys, the dingoes, the koalas, the kangaroos. They stop munching to listen. They scratch their ears. The last group of tourists is ambling through the park. The animals sniff the familiar odours of plastic, coca cola, and sweat as they sleep in the drowsy late afternoon. The tourists stand outside the baboon’s cage and try to do what the keeper tells them. His wide leather hat shades his face and they cannot see his eyes. He tells them they must speak to the baboon as if it is a child. They must not move suddenly, or feed the baboon. They must not speak to each other. They are silenced into numb smiles, while the baboon dances and rages. He has given up communicating to these faces. He only watches the keeper. The zoo is closing down. Its emus are mangy, its eucalypts are dry and sagging. It is a dustbowl of thirsty trees and panting beasts. Only the keeper is smart, khakied and washed. He watches the baboon, who watches him.

The keeper tells the tourists of the day how the baboon stole the keys from his pocket and in seconds opened the door and ran to the monkeys’ cage to free them. Only a baboon would think of others, he says; a monkey would only think of himself. When the baboon was recaptured it bit him on the arm and he shows them the scar which is still red and pocked with stitch marks, like a Frankenstein. “Keep back,” he snaps. “Don’t irritate him.”

The keeper’s name is Mervin. He looks forward to the time when the last visitors leave, and the padlocks of the park can be fastened. The baboon is too clever for the dilapidated zoo and he frightens the other helpers. He frightens Mervin too, but Mervin doesn’t let it show.

A week before a boy made fun of the baboon. He jumped up and down in front of the cage and made monkey noises and flapped his arms about. Mervin was feeding the Tasmanian Devils and he heard the squealing and shouting and ran. The other animals looked as if they were cowering; as if a war was beginning.

The baboon was flinging his wiry body at the boy, rattling the sides of the cage. Mervin grabbed the boy and shook him. The baboon screamed and screamed. The mother cried. The baboon stretched his long arm through the bars and twisted his hand towards the boy’s throat. Mervin threw the boy down onto the sand. His parents are suing the zoo. They don’t understand, thinks Mervin. They don’t understand what the animal sees. He sees more than you or I could possibly imagine.

Mervin was once a soldier. You can see it in his spine. He was in Vietnam, and got out with only a damaged leg that drags a little, but not noticeably. It was what he saw that damaged him most of all. He doesn’t remember it unless in dreams. Bad dreams running with bloody tears. Before he was a soldier he was a teenager, growing up in the harsh bush with an Irish farmer for a father. Mervin knows about cages, and about mockery. He has told the boss that the baboon must go to a bigger, stronger cage. Mervin cannot be answerable for the baboon. He is stronger than any of them; but the boss is old and drinks too much and stays at the top end of the park where a waterfall still runs prettily. He tells Mervin it’s up to him. Money is his problem, not baboons.

“I get all the shit jobs,” Mervin tells his mates at the RSL on Saturday night, drinking the last few moments of happy hour. They nod, and laugh, mirthlessly.

Mervin grumbles to the baboon, “It’s him up the top you should be screeching at, not me,” but the baboon turns his back and laughs.

No one wants to clean the cage; no one wants to go up close.

“Come on old boy,” says Mervin.

The baboon beckons with his leathery hand. Mervin steps back.

“What you need is a wife,” says Mervin, who has written to the zoo in Sydney above the boss’s head to ask if they would like to buy the baboon.

Mervin has no wife. In the evenings he sits outside his veranda, cleaning his rifle, and talking to his dog. The dog looks up at him and nods. She watches him walk to the fridge to get a beer, but stays very still, as she has been taught. She may only run when Mervin throws the ball. The baboon does not like to see Mervin with the dog, and shakes its fist through the bars.

When the baboon came to the zoo he was small and undernourished. Mervin would go into the cage and play with him; the little baboon would climb up Mervin’s body and sit on his head. He would scratch its back and tickle its ears. Together they rolled and teased in the lonely cage with its solitary rubber tyre. One day Mervin played dead; lying with his head on his hands on the floor of the cage. The baboon came up and touched his back gently, and listened for his breathing; it danced around him and looked to heaven. Then it slid its hand to Mervin’s belt and felt for his keys. Mervin jumped up, momentarily losing his balance. The baboon screeched. That was the end of the playing, and the beginning of the watching.

The big zoo in Sydney wrote back and said they would send a man over to see the baboon, and that they were looking for a male to replace their older, now impotent animal. Mervin read the letter out to the baboon who squinted at him jokingly. Then he ran to the bars of the cage and shook them. Bits of rust fell off and lay in the sand, and the monkeys next door started hollering and sniggering. Mervin folded the letter up and put it back in his top pocket, shouting at one of the younger helpers to get a move on.

The night before the visitor came Mervin stayed up alone drinking beer. His face was hard and brown in the darkness. He felt mixed up. Like most rural people he resented cities and city people. He knew the big zoo in Sydney would have a cage that was more like an oasis, with trees, pools of water, moats and playthings. He knew too that the baboon had become mad and lonely and that he might change and be better tempered with other baboons. He thought too about himself, and the cage after the baboon had gone; the tired koalas that the visitors longed to stroke and the boss who cared less and less, and he talked to himself long into the night and fell asleep with his head on his knees, and did not even see the grey snake that slid over the veranda, past his still boots, that might as well have been tree trunks, and disappeared off into the shrub. He slept and dreamt of a cage door opening and creaking on its hinges.

In the morning Mervin had a bad head and a stiff neck. He drove to the airport to meet the zoologist; a slippery white man with no muscle and the eyes of a desert rat. When they arrived at the dismal park with its aging roundabout and stagnant lake Mervin became silent and defensive. The trees that lined the driveway were still beautiful and wide and stretched their limbs over the rough track, and the visitor politely commented on them. He became less polite when they reached the animal park, and barely stifled his distaste for the shanty cages and dismal conditions. When they reached the cage the baboon was pressed up tight against the wire as if he expected them. He saw the zoologist and bared his teeth, pointing at him with intent.

Mervin and the zoologist went up to the cage, carrying fists of fresh fruit for the baboon to eat.

“A baboon should never be left alone,” said the zoologist.

“He may not adapt in Sydney. He could attack the others. I would say he’s gone half insane living here all by himself.”

Mervin disliked the zoologist.

“He relies on me for company.”

“That’s what the rich say, who have them for pets, then they come crying to us because their baby turns on them … I’ve seen it happen so often I could weep.”

Mervin opened his mouth to answer but the baboon swung close to the bars and fixed his eyes on the zoologist and Mervin.

“He knows what we’re saying,” Mervin says.

“Does he?” says the zoologist, dryly.

“I’ve never treated him like a pet.”

“No, of course.”

Mervin had a sensation that he had not experienced for a long time. He thought he might cry. Tears were charging into his eyes. He turned away. The baboon stretched his hand towards him and crooned softly.

“Can we make some arrangements?” The zoologist was looking at his watch.

Mervin nodded and led him away from the cage to the office where they sat uncomfortably on oil drums talking of aeroplane flights and tranquillisers.

“You’ll be moving on yourself?” asks the zoologist.

“Yes, eventually,” he looks down at his leg. He is not employable.

From one jungle to another; that’s what he thinks. He imagines himself on welfare.

How else do we explain what happened next? The local newspaper ran the story and the nationals picked it up. Mervin went into the baboon’s cage, at night, when the moon was a buttery slab in the sky. He took his gun. He didn’t know what he was doing. He was drunk from his dreams of crying children and old harmless men hiding in bamboo huts while the soldiers hunted them out like rats. Somewhere he recalls a woman holding his head in the palm of her hand, and a tree with large fanlike leaves shading his eyes. He remembers a nipple and the dark blanket around him. The voices that took him from there and away from the moist milkiness. He remembers hunger.

Once he watched a film about baboons in the wild; a family group that lived on handfuls of sweet root and sometimes meat; grooming each other dreamily in the buzzing greenery. It reminded him of that feeling, and it was perhaps that which drew him to the baboon’s cage in the middle of the night with his clean gun and his heavy wide hat that covered his eyes.

The door of the cage was open as he stood there, but the baboon did not leave. He looked at the space, and then back at Mervin. Mervin sat on the ground. The baboon was uncertain. He sidled over and put his square face right up close to Mervin; eye to eye.

Mervin’s hard leathery cheeks were wet. The baboon wiped the tears and licked his fingers. Mervin was not sure why he was crying. The baboon took the gun and examined it. He looked down the nozzle; he stroked the barrel. He had looked at the gun before, hanging next to the keys on Mervin’s belt. Guns and keys. Keys and guns. The baboon laughed. The other animals laughed too. The monkeys next door tittered. Mervin smiled at the baboon, who pointed the gun at Mervin and shot him cleanly through the heart.

The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.

Westerly acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians. We celebrate the continuous living cultures of Indigenous people and their vital contributions within Australian society.

Westerly’s office, at the University of Western Australia, is located on Whadjak Noongar land. We recognise the Noongar people as the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land.

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