Monkey Army | Eka Kurniawan | Granta

Monkey Army

Eka Kurniawan

Translated by Annie Tucker

He’d called the office and asked how he was supposed to rid the excavation site of monkeys. ‘For good,’ they’d said. The instruction was curt and final: ‘You know how to do it.’

Darmin opened the supply closet, took out an air rifle, pumped it, loaded the bullets, tiptoed to the window, cracked it open, and peered out from behind the curtain. There were a few monkeys in the yard. Macaques. Two of them were fighting over a plastic bag, the others just milled around. He looked for the biggest and found it sitting near the bushes, watching over his troop. Darmin got in position. He could hear himself breathing. He aimed at the monkey’s chest, but at the last moment raised the rifle just a hair or two above the monkey’s head.

The shot rang out. He saw the big monkey startle and run, heard hoots and screams as the troop fled into the thicket, reaching for twigs and clambering up branches.

He went out of the house, still carrying the rifle. The monkeys were gone from the yard now. They’d been a problem for weeks. A rifle shot could scare them away, but they always came back. It was annoying, but it was his job.

He stood watch in the yard in case the creatures returned. He could still occasionally hear their shrieks, but there was no other sign of them.

The residential units for the workers consisted of a few bunkhouses each. They stood in a row looking out on a small yard, which also functioned as a dirt road, and a ridge beyond that. Three bachelors lived in the house on the right, but they’d all gone out that morning to inspect a line-up of excavators. The house on the left had been for the company doctor, a middle-aged man who’d arrived with his wife and small daughter. But the child couldn’t bear the monkeys and so they’d moved back to the city. Now the doctor came and went every day, about an hour’s drive. Darmin lived alone. A kid fresh out of college had been rooming with him, but when the monkeys arrived, he’d gone back home without a word.

The monkeys here were mercilessly stupid. Their brains had been braised by the sun. They had watched the huts being built along the slope of the hill, hundreds of workers arriving with their trucks and heavy machinery. When the trucks roared and whined, they should have known to withdraw further into the jungle. Instead, they came in gangs, baring their teeth in wide grins. They thought the humans would be threatened. Darmin lifted his rifle and shot into the air, and they scattered.

But the animals were too stupid to stay away. They came back again. People had started digging up the earth and, slowly but surely, the hills had been flattened and new valleys had been created. For months now the revving of engines had replaced the rushing of wind and the splashing of water, and bright work lights glared all night long.

The monkeys were disturbed, and it seemed as though they had to disturb the humans in return. It had reached new heights a few weeks ago: a child in the Unit XII settlement had fought with a monkey over a bag of peanuts until another monkey came and the pair attacked him. The child suffered bites on his cheek and arm. The company sent the kid to the hospital. There were no signs of rabies, but the incident had aggravated the workers who lived in the bunkhouses. As time passed, the monkeys kept growing bolder. Then a foreman was riding his motorcycle when a monkey suddenly attacked from above, leaping down onto him from a branch. The bite wasn’t bad, but the man lost control of the bike, was thrown into a ditch, and broke his arm. A truck driver sleeping in his cabin was attacked too. Deep scratches across his face left him scarred, and partially blind from a ruptured eyeball.

That was when they called the forest police and filed a report with the local military headquarters. Neither the police nor the military took them seriously. Instead they said, ‘You guys can take care of this monkey business yourselves.’

More than twenty years ago, Darmin had lived in a settlement on the edge of a teak forest that belonged to the government. He didn’t do much back then. He would cut down teak in secret and sell the poached timber to a middleman. If the forest police caught him, he would have to split the profits – later he also shared them with a soldier from the military office. He lived alone. Five years earlier, his wife had died giving birth to their child, who didn’t survive either.

One day there was a commotion. People were angry with the old witch doctor. He knew the guy lived in the neighboring forest. Villagers with strange ailments would go visit him, as would folks wanting other kinds of things – to have a child, to make someone suffer. Darmin had never really thought about him one way or another until that day, when the extent of his crimes was revealed.

The witch doctor didn’t just heal all kinds of illness. He also used magic, and many had died at his hand – at least, that’s what people believed. He was long rumored to be lecherous, but when word got out that he’d robbed a local girl of her virtue, the people’s anger erupted. A throng had gathered outside his house, armed with machetes and spears, but no one dared actually go inside and grab him.

Darmin heard all this. He knew the girl they were talking about. He would often pass her in the mornings, when she was on her way to school, and she would always greet him, ‘Good morning, Uncle.’ He was in fact no relation to her, but her warmth always made him imagine what his child might have been like if she’d lived. The thought of the witch doctor taking her honor made his chest feel hot. Without saying much, he charged toward the man’s house.

There he saw faces full of rage, which he recognized, and fear, which disgusted him. Were they afraid of the man’s power? That’s bullshit, he thought. He didn’t believe in magic or witchcraft. He grabbed a machete out of someone’s hand, kicked down the door and strode into the house.

Once inside he saw the man right there, peering out through a crack in the window. His wife was huddled over, crying into her hands. The witch doctor turned in surprise. When he met Darmin’s gaze, his eyes were pleading.

Darmin walked toward him, the machete raised high in his clenched fist. The witch doctor cupped his hands together at his chest, begging for mercy, but Darmin didn’t feel compelled to show any. His fist flew down. A powerful swing from a hand accustomed to wielding an axe that chopped down teak trees. The blade struck the witch doctor’s neck. Blood gushed. His head sagged. When she realized what was happening, the wife let out a piercing scream. With one more slash the witch doctor’s head was severed from its body. Darmin carried the head out into the yard by its hair, then threw it to the ground.

The police arrested Darmin. For weeks, in jail, he kept asking himself: What have I done? Why did I kill him? Where did I get the nerve? He shuddered to remember it. Someone from the local military office came to visit him, to comfort him. The soldier said the villagers had finally mustered up some courage. They had slit the throats of a dozen other witch doctors. He didn’t know exactly how many, but people were talking about it. He was surprised there were that many in the village.

‘The newspapers will all write about it for a few months, but those guys will still be dead,’ the soldier said. ‘And they deserve to be dead.’ The judge sentenced him to seven years, but he was only in jail for three months and a few days. One day the warden brought him to the exit door and whispered, ‘You can go.’ Darmin returned to his house and the villagers treated him with great respect. He didn’t need to steal teak anymore, the villagers did it for him. Logs piled up behind his house. A middleman came with a guarded truck and hauled the timber away. For years, until the villagers’ respect wore thin, he didn’t need to do a thing.

The next day a monkey came to the mining site and bit an excavator operator, leaving a gaping wound in his neck. The doctor had to transport him to the hospital, praying he didn’t die on the way.

Eka Kurniawan

Eka Kurniawan was born in Indonesia. His novels include Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger. He is currently working on his next novel, Black Smudge.

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Translated by Annie Tucker

Annie Tucker is a translator from the Indonesian. Her translations of Eka Kurniawan’s fiction include Beauty is a WoundVengeance is MineAll Others Pay Cash and Kitchen Curse. Her translation of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s story ‘Anna and Her Daughter’s Partner’ was published in 2023.

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