Old Fool
Elegy for a Monkey

By Hu Fayun [1]

Translated by Paul E. Festa

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2017)

Hu Fayun

Old Fool is a tiny monkey.  He’s not a kind of monkey we commonly see, but one that’s on the verge of extinction.

Early last winter, my wife returned from the wet market and reported seeing a peddler selling two tiny monkeys; they were caged in a wire rattrap, curled up pitifully into little balls and huddled together to escape the cold.  Each time my wife returned from the wet market she brought back a few of these heartrending stories: about a wounded muntjac deer with melancholy eyes; about a few small hedgehogs fighting fruitlessly to break free from a nylon net bag; about a row of brilliantly plumaged golden pheasant corpses; about a small squirrel struggling in the scorching sun for its final dying breath; about a clowder of cats crushed together and yowling piteously in chorus. There were also small squawking quail bouncing frenziedly in a basket, bare and bloody from being plucked featherless while alive. There were frogs, tortoises, soft-shelled turtles, and snakes—all of which, as recipes prescribe, had been skinned alive. There were also those docile and adorable pigeons, rabbits, and lambs. For these small creatures, every wet market is their Auschwitz concentration camp.

But this time it was the two monkeys. Monkeys have much in common with humans; it’s said we share a common ancestry. The monkeys merely live according to their instincts and stay up in the trees. Humans, by contrast, climbed down from the trees and became bipedal plains inhabitants; we learned how to make the javelin and stone axe, the broadsword and long spear, and eventually guns and rockets capable of slaughtering all life on the planet, including ourselves.

My wife said she wanted to buy those two monkeys right then and there. Even if she bought them, what would be accomplished? The next day there’d be four more monkeys for sale. What’s more, could we offer them happiness and wellbeing? Could we give to them the life they require? Our home already had a half-dozen cats and dogs; would they get along with the monkeys? Over the last few years, we’ve raised a Noah’s ark of animals: cats, dogs, tortoises, frogs, hedgehogs, pigeons, parrots, grasshoppers, goldfish, tadpoles, loaches . . . not a one didn’t reach a tragic end, or won’t reach a tragic end. The longer they remain alive, the deeper grows our attachment to them, and so the more tragic is their ending. We’ve already buried a bunch of our animals in our downstairs flowerbed, a patch of which is a cemetery with no gravestones. It’s as if we’re atoning for humanity’s crimes against animals. My wife often remarks that people are the most evil creatures on the planet.

The next day, my wife went back to the wet market. She found remaining only one monkey, which she said looked even more miserable (we don’t know if the other monkey was sold or if it died). She was bent on buying that monkey, so I told her to go ahead with it. She thereupon went and invited the monkey peddler back to our house. The peddler held in his hand a small wire cage with the monkey inside. The monkey was motionless and curled up tightly into a ball, with its head buried deep in its bosom. The peddler reached into the cage and grabbed the monkey; its head was still down and buried, while its hands and feet clung tightly to the cage’s iron mesh. By the time the peddler finally yanked the monkey free from the cage, the monkey’s fingers and toes were bloody where the iron wire sliced into them. The monkey was truly Lilliputian, only five or six inches tall; including its long and slender arms and legs, it was still under a foot. It was also exceedingly slight, couldn’t weigh more than a jin; holding it in your palm you could feel discretely on its back each one of its thin and fragile ribs. Its appearance was also rather different from that of ordinary monkeys. It had large round eyes that were soft and timid; each socket had a black ring around it so that, in this regard, it resembled a panda bear. Its nose was long and pointy, with its delicate little mouth concealed beneath it. Protruding perpendicularly from its round head were two small dark oval ears. A fine layer of golden yellow down overlaid its brown fur. A black stripe ran along its spine from its neck to the tip of its barely discernible tiny tail. Its hands and feet, each with five long and lithe fingers and toes, were extremely human-like; a sheer round nail formed at the tip of each digit.

Old Fool, photo by Hu Fayun.

I asked the peddler what kind of monkey it was. He called it a sleeve monkey, explaining that in ancient times people played with the monkey by tucking it up their sleeve. I also inquired about the monkey’s diet. The peddler replied that it eats fruit, adding that it also eats whatever humans eat. I asked about the monkey’s price, to which the peddler responded, “300.” He enumerated the price components: the original purchase price in Yunnan, the transportation cost and travel expenses, plus a small profit margin. We looked at the tiny fellow—ice-cold from head to toe, all skin and bones, on the verge of death, forlorn and helpless. We decided to buy it. We paid the peddler 270 yuan.

My wife held the little fellow in both her hands to warm him.  I hurriedly found a large cardboard box, punched a few holes for ventilation, padded the interior with a thick bath towel, and laid down some soft and clean tissue paper. I then installed two electric mosquito expellers, a coffee warmer to heat the interior, and finally a thermometer. The little fellow now had his own temperature-controlled house. I placed inside a few pieces of in-season fruit: apple, pear, banana, and pineapple. I put the little fellow into his new home and he immediately clutched the mosquito expeller with his two hands and two feet. The little fellow was freezing.

After he settled into his new home we came up with a name for him, “Old Fool.”  The name was meant to call attention, by contrast, to his daintiness and cleverness, and, as is customary with children from humble families, to shield him from jealous gods.

That evening in our living room, we turned on the heater while watching TV and placed Old Fool and his box house in the warmest spot right in front of the heater. Once the room temperature rose high enough, we took Old Fool out of his house and let him move about to get some exercise. The pieces of fruit we had placed in his box earlier in the day were shriveled; Old Fool hadn’t eaten a morsel. We then peeled a few mandarin orange slices, chopped them into small pieces the size of cigarette butts, and moved them close to his mouth. Old Fool unexpectedly stretched out his two delicate hands and, with fingers as slender as matches, grabbed a couple pieces. After sniffing them, he dove into them, slobbering juice all over his hands and face like a person eating watermelon. After sucking all the pieces dry, he casually flung away the remaining fibrous fragments. His gestures made him look just like a miniature person. He was full after only a few orange pieces. He stuck out his long and thin pink tongue and meticulously licked clean his face and hands. He then proceeded to crawl slowly along the sofa, leaving a fine trail of wee along the way. We were overjoyed to see Old Fool eat and pee, and showered him with heartfelt praise. My wife persists in believing that animals can understand what we say.

A few days later, the CCTV Midday News broadcast a story on the illegal sale of rare animals. The instant we saw the report, we both yelled, “Old Fool!”  The report pictured two animals whose faces looked identical to Old Fool’s, but whose stature was larger. The broadcaster explained that recently in Guangzhou there were discovered two officially designated ‘critically endangered’ slow lorises that authorities suspected may have been abandoned following a failed attempt to smuggle them out of the country. We were stunned to discover that we were raising a nationally protected rare animal. We immediately dug up our Rare Animal Encyclopedia and found that the very first entry was about the slow loris: other than body size, the description of a loris matched Old Fool exactly. The slow loris is also called slender loris. It’s a member of the order primates, with some close genetic links to humans. It lives in tropical and subtropical forests and likes a warm humid climate. It eats tree buds, tender leaves, seeds, bird eggs, and insects. The slow loris is an early, primitive primate. Its viability and powers of self-defense are poor; its only means of self-protection is to clutch and not let go. The encyclopedia article tells of one slow loris whose hands and feet remained locked onto a tree branch even after being beaten to death by a human.

I rang a friend of mine, Professor Tang Zhaozi, a zoologist in Wuhan University’s biology department. He told us that what we were raising is called a ‘pygmy slow loris’—‘pygmy’ because it’s smaller in stature than a slow loris. At present, he pointed out, there are fewer pygmy slow lorises in China than there are giant pandas. But without the panda’s precious “national treasure” designation, the pygmy slow loris receives little attention and is in greater danger of going extinct. Last winter, Professor Tang said that someone delivered to him a pygmy slow loris; it was tiny and wouldn’t eat. He used an eyedropper to feed it milk, but to no avail for it died after only a few days. I asked him if there was an agency or organization that takes in rare animals. He said that the zoo, technically speaking, had a critically endangered animal rescue center, but that the conditions there fell far short of those in our home. There was little guarantee they’d provide the right climate, humidity level, and diet for Old Fool; and if he died, he died. The caretakers punch in and out, keeping only workday hours, explained professor Tang; who could tend to your little fellow twenty-four hours a day like the two of you? For these delicate creatures, he added, loving care is the most important thing. I asked Professor Tang if it made sense to return Old Fool to his natural habitat. He explained that a young pygmy slow loris that had been prematurely separated from its mother was deprived of the training necessary to survive on its own. Besides, he added, who would be willing to make such a vast trek in order to return him to his natural tropical forest habitat? Professor Tang described how, in recent years, farmers of the Yunnan and Guangxi mountain forests, with no other resources to exploit, have found it most profitable to catch and kill wild animals. He said that once, while down south on a research trip, he discovered that in some regions a single wooded area was covered with thousands of traps; it was hunting to the point of annihilation. A precious animal like the slow loris, for example, fetches only 30 to 50 yuan; rarely do they survive for long; more often than not they are killed during the capture. In conclusion, Professor Tang drove home the point that, even if we found the right formula to keep Old Fool alive, in the end it’s still the end of a line, a final death, since Old Fool will not reproduce. Even in the wild, this species has a low reproduction rate: pregnancy is only once a year and produces only a single baby. Imploringly, I told Professor Tang over and over that, should he hear of someone with another pygmy slow loris, he mustn’t fail to buy it for me. If it’s one of the opposite sex, the two could become a married couple; if it’s of the same sex, they could keep each other company.

As the days grew colder, we concerned ourselves completely with maintaining a 20-30 degree Celsius living environment for Old Fool, checking his thermometer countless times each day. What we feared most was a power outage while we were out or during the night. At night during wakeful moments, we never failed to flip on the bedlamp just to be sure there was power.  If we needed to be out for more than a short time, we made sure before we left to place in Old Fool’s box a full pitcher of piping hot water. Eventually we found a small coal-fueled warmer that burned for ten or so hours; this finally put our hearts at ease when we needed to be away for a while.

Old Fool gradually became comfortable around our four cats and dog. Right alongside them, he would curl up languidly on the carpet in front of the 2000-watt heater. From the day Old Fool entered our home, I admonished again and again our feline and canine family members never to bully their tiny simian brother. During their initial encounters with Old Fool, this odd critter no bigger than a rat, they would rush to surround him and one-by-one take a sniff of his behind—this was their method of determining if he was of like kind; otherwise they would warily gaze at him, inspecting his every move. Occasionally these encounters might teeter on the edge of indecorous behavior, at which moments my wife and I would holler at the curious coterie to stop. Our cats and dog soon learned that their new companion held status and couldn’t be casually teased. Our six-year-old cat, Junior Master, often slept with Old Fool nestled in his arms like a pillow. Old Fool also liked to sleep snuggled up in the bosom of our young bitch Holly, who took Old Fool to be her own pup. If one of our cats made off with Old Fool, Holly would huffily give chase, woofing and whining implacably. For Old Fool, who during the daytime hunkered down in his heated box, winter nights cozying up for a few hours with his companions in front of the large heater was a treat. This was also the time when Old Fool took some exercise by gamboling a few laps around the carpet. Relative to his body size, Old Fool’s limbs were long and lanky, so each of his strides had a long span. We sometimes gave him a tree-root carving to remind him of his native forest; with his willowy arms and legs he would swing lithely on the branches, allowing us to imagine him in his homeland. Old Fool had a mild and gentle temperament and almost never made a sound. Only when irritated would he let out a soft buzzing drone; I wonder if this might be why “slow loris” in Chinese is rendered literally as “honeybee monkey”?  In a fit of pique Old Fool would also bite. For example, if I exerted force to unclench his hands and feet from a spot where he wanted to remain, he would suddenly turn his head and snap at me. Indeed he bit me a bunch of times. Tiny pearls of blood oozed from his sharp little bites, like a finger pricked with a needle for a blood test. My wife worried that I might contract some disease and pressed me to get vaccinated for rabies. I reminded her that Old Fool was clean, having hailed from the most pristine and pollution free environment on the planet.

After climate control, Old Fool’s diet was next most worrisome.  The literature states that, in addition to fruit, the slow loris eats tender leaves and shoots. Wintertime the city is barren; there’s no foliage.  Even in spring and summer, there’s a limited and lackluster variety of greenery. We occasionally brought back from the suburbs some leaf buds, but Old Fool never touched them. We even tried a medley of vegetables, but none interested Old Fool. The literature also includes insects on the slow loris’ menu. Besides mosquitos, flies, and cockroaches, however, what kind of bugs could we forage or grub in the city? Looking at Old Fool, I was at times overcome with a sense of disbelief: why should this wide-eyed infant pygmy slow loris find himself countless miles away from his tropical forest home living in a ‘concrete jungle’ apartment together with completely alien creatures and things? Only humans could contrive such an absurd story. Humans have already expelled to remote obscurity ancient and delicate animals such as this one. But mankind still won’t let go of them, uprooting them time and again and removing them to estranged worlds where they suffer from loneliness or simply die.

The weather slowly warmed, with the thermometer inching up from below to above zero, and then from a few degrees to ten plus degrees. On sunny days, we placed Old Fool’s box outside the window on the flower terrace, where he’d bask in the rays of sunshine blazing through his small plexiglass window. We also opened his roof hatch, allowing the spring breeze to carry his distant dreams back into his prison cell and caress him there. Relishing the sun’s glimmering rays, he slumbered comfortably. Old Fool was nocturnal; during the day he slept.

We awaited anxiously the arrival of summer, when Old Fool could savor a hot and humid clime akin to that of his natural home. When conditions were suitable, we planned to take Old Fool into the woods, where he could climb trees to his heart’s content; we might even discover some soft leaves and shoots pleasing to his palate. Old Fool little by little warmed up to us, until he was at ease sleeping in our bosom. When we called his name, he unhurriedly opened his gentle and innocent eyes, took a calm and easy peek at us, and then unhurriedly closed them again. He found his way back to his house on his own. If we weren’t paying attention to him, he might hide in a corner, forcing us to use a flashlight in order to ferret him out. It was never easy for us to find him, and when we did Old Fool would be sitting quietly in his covert corner casually watching us as though nothing at all was the matter. Occasionally at bedtime, Old Fool liked to curl up with us under our warm quilt, just like a cute and lovable little baby.

Old Fool seemed so securely settled that we assumed he would contentedly grow old together with us. We assumed he had adapted to this ill-fitted environment. One day in early April, however, with the arrival of summer imminent, Old Fool died. He passed away during the night, without a single warning sign. That morning, my wife replaced the tissue paper in his box as usual.  When she took Old Fool into her arms, she discovered that his body was stiff, fixed rigidly in its sleeping posture. In the midst of dreaming, Old Fool had returned to his native forest.

I rang Professor Tang. He told us that we had already achieved something miraculous by enabling Old Fool to survive the winter and spring. He surmised that Old Fool likely died from malnutrition . . . we don’t know what they need to eat. Even us experts, he added, understand very little about this animal. In the end, this is not their natural environment.

Wuhan University has the largest animal taxidermy museum in China. Three generations of Professor Tang’s family founded and built up the museum over the last seventy years. A good many species collected in the museum will forever be known to the world only as taxidermy specimens. I told Professor Tang that I would be happy to contribute Old Fool to the museum, if they needed him. Even if not, I asked him nonetheless to do me the favor of making a taxidermy specimen of Old Fool. I wanted Old Fool’s specimen to make the following proclamation to future generations: “I thrived on this earth for a few million years, but owing to the rise of humankind I am now extinct.”

I took Old Fool over to Professor Tang’s museum. They had just finished making a taxidermy specimen of a gorilla that had recently died in a zoo. The gorilla perished in the prime of its life, solitarily confined in an iron cage. Its home was far away, somewhere in central Africa[2]. This giant several-hundred-kilogram carcass had been thoroughly disemboweled, stuffed with dry and weightless wadding, and suspended in a fixed posture on the wall, from where it gazed down, expressionlessly, at a world impervious to reason.

Looking at the giant gorilla, Old Fool appeared tinier than ever; he wasn’t even as big as the gorilla’s palm. These two distant and unacquainted kinsfolk, once separated by so many mountains and seas—one from a tropical forest of South Asia, the other from a montane forest of central Africa—found themselves now together in this altogether perplexing place.

Humans have meant inexorable doom for countless living creatures. Since Mother Nature let the genie of humanity slip out of the bottle, the entire world has been unable ever again to bring it under control. Under the banner of progress and civilization, humankind without scruple or misgiving has massacred innumerable living beings and wiped out their homelands. No one can stop its forward march, not until Mother Nature’s final revenge—the complete destruction of the natural world. When that time arrives, the last life specimen will be humankind itself.

Translator’s notes:

[1] This essay was published in 《散文· 海外版》2001年第一期 under the title《老傻》. The author has given permission to expand the title in English in order to afford readers a better sense of the story’s general subject matter.

[2] The original text names the gorilla’s “home” as “the Americas” (“它的家在遥远的美洲大陆”).  Gorillas are indigenous only to central Africa, so I inquired with the author about this line.  The author explained that an “American zoo” (一家美洲动物园; ‘American’, here, includes North, Central, and South America) had gifted the gorilla to the Wuhan Zoo, so this is why he named “the Americas” as the gorilla’s “home.”  Zoos, however, are all of a kind in dispossessing animals of their natural “home.”  In the context of the story, I therefore think it makes sense for “home” to reference the gorilla’s natural habitat, central Africa, not a zoo somewhere in the Americas where it previously had been held captive.  The author gave me permission to revise the English text in a manner that I felt was appropriate.