© 2016 by George Polley All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
Drawings © 2007 by Calisse Weidner, Aurora, Colorado
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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The Old Man and the Monkey
In a small park near one of the rivers that run through the city of Asahikawa, Hokkaido, there is a bronze statue of an old man and a monkey seated side by side on a wide flat stone looking out over the river and the mountains. The monkey is bigger than ordinary snow monkeys; the top of his head reaches to the old man’s shoulder.
Looking at the bags under his eyes, one can see that the monkey, like the man, is elderly. Affixed to the base of the statue is a bronze plaque that reads: “Genjiro and Yukitaro.” These two old friends sit and warm themselves in silence as the years and seasons pass.
For as long as the statue has been there, people passing by have paused, wondering how a monkey and a man could become friends because, as everyone knows, monkeys are pests and can be dangerous when humans get too close. Some people tell each other that such a friendship is unnatural, and because it is unnatural, is impossible. Others believe Genjiro and Yukitaro are characters that the artist made up. But everyone agrees the statue is appealing, because the two old friends have such an air of tranquility and peace about them that people come and sit down next to it to enjoy their lunch, or to just sit quietly and look out at the river and the mountains, later commenting on how peaceful the experience was.
So it is that the old man and the monkey receive a constant stream of visitors who sit and enjoy their company in silence and take something of them away to warm themselves.
No one believes the old man and the monkey were real; but I know they were because the old man was my grandfather, Genjiro Yamada, and Yukitaro was his companion and friend for the last five years of his life.
Now is the time for me to tell their story and reveal for the first time how an improbable friendship between a man and a monkey happened, how it was good, and how it ended.
Every day Genjiro, an old man of seventy-five, walked to a rise near his house, sat on a broad, flat stone and looked out over the fields that lay scattered across the valley below. It was peaceful there: the colors changed with the seasons, the river meandered back and forth across the valley floor as it made its way to the sea, the dark forested mountains rose in the north and west, and in winter everything was covered with a brilliant white blanket of snow.
The rise with its broad flat stone was where Genjiro felt most at peace and at one with every living thing. He called it his “looking place.” It was one of four reasons he bought his house when he was searching for a house that would become his and Harue’s home.
The second reason he bought the house was when Harue saw it, she fell in love with it. It was big enough for the two of them and the children they would have, and it had ample room for a small garden where she could grow the vegetables and flowers that she became famous for.
The third reason Genjiro bought the house was its location near the edge of the village, yet far enough from the nearby forest so the snow monkeys that lived there never ventured near the house or the village. It was a house their two children, Junichi and Kiyoko, enjoyed returning to after they grew up and moved to larger nearby towns.
The fourth reason Genjiro bought the house was it was in a tiny village in which only a hundred or so people lived. It was so small, in fact, it didn’t have a name. People living in nearby towns like Fukugawa called it simply “the village.” Its attraction was its smallness, its closeness to the railroad track running between Sapporo and Asahikawa to the north, and the dense forest nearby where some of the best wild mushrooms Hokkaido grew. The villagers were able to pick mushrooms and cut wood without the monkeys getting in their way or interfering with them as long as they stayed near the edges of the forest, something they had learned from hard experience the first time someone wandered deeper into the forest and was driven back to its edges by a whole tribe of howling monkeys.
Over the years Genjiro worked at a lumber mill in Fukugawa, he stopped at his looking place each evening on his way home from work and spent a few moments looking out over the valley and the mountains before continuing on home where Harue awaited him with their evening meal. Every evening, summer or winter, rain or shine, he stopped and looked out over the valley before going on to his house where he greeted his wife and children with a smile on his face.
Thus it is no surprise to anyone that when he retired, he spent time sitting on the broad flat rock after breakfast and again in the afternoon, thinking about nothing in particular and enjoying the breeze and the rich smells it brought past his nose, watching and listening as the birds and insects flew and his neighbors cows grazed in the pasture near the riverbank.
From time to time a red fox ran by carrying food to her kits; at other times her kits, three of them, ran with her. Sometimes when the weather was sunny and warm, Genjiro would turn to his wife and smile, and she would nod and pack a lunch with onigiri, dried fish, pickles and miso soup, and the two of them would go to Genjiro’s favorite spot and spend an hour or more eating and looking and saying very little, because little needs to be said after so many years together. Harue enjoyed these quiet times with her husband when so much passed between them without either needing to say anything. It was the same sense of peacefulness that she felt when she worked in her garden, digging in the soil, talking and singing to her vegetables and flowers because she felt so close to them.
The days passed by one after the other, each much like the one before it until one morning a few days after Genjiro’s seventy-fifth birthday, when a large grey monkey walked out of the forest, came up to where Genjiro was sitting, stopped in front of him and stood looking intently into Genjiro’s eyes.
Genjiro concluded from the large pouches under the monkey’s deep-set light brown eyes that he was old like Genjiro himself. Because the monkey’s lip was curled in what looked like a snarl, the first thought crossing Genjiro’s mind was that the monkey might attack him. Since the monkey’s gaze was calm, he returned his steady gaze with a nod of his head and a gentle smile.
After a few minutes standing motionless and looking into Genjiro’s eyes, the monkey sat down on the rock next to him, and for the next hour or so they sat together looking out over the valley without moving or making a sound. Then the monkey got up, looked into Genjiro’s eyes again and ambled off toward his forest home. Genjiro’s eyes followed him until the monkey disappeared into the forest.
This same scene occurred every day for the next four days: catching a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye, Genjiro looked toward the forest and saw the old monkey walking toward him. On the third day as the monkey ambled toward him, Genjiro said to himself: “Since you keep coming to visit, you need to have a name. I will call you Yukitaro.” When Genjiro got home that afternoon, he told Harue about his new friend.
“You have to be careful,” she said; “You know how dangerous monkeys can be. He might attack you. Be sure not to give him any of your bento. It will only encourage him. One day he will follow you home and I will be overrun with monkeys in the garden.” Harue regarded her husband with a skeptical eye, knowing at that very moment he was thinking about how much of his onigiri he would give the monkey the next time he saw him. Her husband was talking about the monkey almost as if he was a new friend, and one always shares one’s food with a friend.
“You know what the others in the village will say if pesky monkeys begin coming around,” she continued. “They,” looking him in the eye, “won’t like it one bit.”
“Mmmm,” Genjiro responded with a slight inclination of his head. “I will keep that in mind.”
But after their meal she saw him wrap an onigiri and put it in his pocket, “for later,” he said. But Harue wasn’t fooled. She knew her husband was thinking about sharing it with the monkey should he appear during his afternoon meditation at his looking place.
But that afternoon the monkey did not appear, so Genjiro ate the onigiri himself.
One day in the middle of an afternoon early that summer, Genjiro and his wife walked to the looking place and sat looking out over the valley as a rain squall followed the river’s meandering course, leaving a rainbow and a trail of steam that rose in the hot summer sun. They spoke softly to one another about things that occupied their minds, namely their children and grandchildren and the weather and where Genjiro’s monkey friend sat, the two of them looking like two old men, which is what they were. The idea of her husband and a monkey sitting side-by-side enjoying the scenery (if monkeys do that sort of thing) seemed so odd to Harue that it made her smile. She had never known Genjiro to form a relationship with any animal other than an occasional small dog, and neither of them had seen a monkey near the village until the monkey Yukitaro put in an appearance. Harue cast a sideways glance at her husband: he was the same Genjiro she had known since she was twenty, except that he was a good deal older. They both were. Perhaps having a monkey as a friend wasn’t so bad, though it did cause talk around the village. She sighed.
Genjiro turned toward her, smiling. “What are you sighing about, Harue-chan?”
“You and your monkey,” she said, feeling slightly embarrassed. “People talk.”
Genjiro smiled back at his wife. “I know they do, Harue-chan. If they weren’t talking about this, they would be talking about something or someone else. I enjoy Yukitaro’s company when I sit and look out at the valley. It is so old, this valley. I like thinking about how long it has been here, and how everything is linked together. I enjoy sitting here alone, and I enjoy sitting here with you, just like this. And since Yukitaro appeared, I have enjoyed sitting here with him. He seems to know when I am here, and shortly after I arrive, he comes along. Not every day, but three or four days a week. I enjoy his company. And he seems to enjoy mine, because he keeps coming back.”
“But you’ve been coming here to sit and meditate for the last fifteen years,” Harue replied, glancing sideways at him. “Why didn’t he come along before? Why did he wait until this spring?”
“I don’t know, Harue-chan,” Genjiro replied with a smile; “the next time I see him, I will have to ask him.”
“Oh, pooh,” she replied, swatting him affectionately on the shoulder; “you’re teasing me.” A question wormed its way into her mind that she hardly dared to ask, but did because of what her grandson Junichiro had recently told her. “Grandmother, grandfather and that monkey talk to each other. I’ve seen them.” So she asked, “Do you talk to him? Does he talk to you?”
“Mmmm,” Genjiro nodded. “Sometimes I do. I share my thoughts with him. And sometimes he answers.”
“Does he actually talk?” Cocking her head, Harue gave her husband a skeptical look. “Can you understand him?”
Genjiro looked out over the valley. “He makes monkey sounds, Harue-chan. I don’t understand him, but I enjoy listening to him. I guess that is understanding, in a way.”
Harue looked out over the valley, lost in her thoughts. Their long life together spread out over fifty years seemed to flow like a river on which they had traveled, hardly noticing until she began looking back. Did Genjiro ever have thoughts like this? Harue turned to ask him.
“Oh!” She put a hand to her mouth, startled, for walking toward them was a very large old gray monkey that must be her husband’s friend. “Husband,” she said, “is that your monkey friend?”
Genjiro looked. “Yes,” he replied, smiling, “that is Yukitaro.”
“Will he bite?” she asked nervously.
“No, Harue-chan, he won’t bite. He is friendly.”
But in spite of what her husband told her, Harue watched the old monkey with a very skeptical eye as he approached, stopped in front of them and gave her a curious look as if to ask, “Who is she?”
“This is my wife,” Genjiro said to the monkey.
Yukitaro cocked his head at her, looked at Genjiro, nodded his head and sat down on his usual spot next to him.
“What an ugly monkey,” Harue thought. The skin of the old monkey’s face was red, wrinkled and scarred, and wore an expression that didn’t look a bit friendly to her. Was his lip always curled like that? Ugh! She wouldn’t want to make friends with a monkey that looked like that! She made a mental note to speak to Genjiro about it when they returned home. But by the time Yukitaro got up and walked away toward the forest, Harue had forgotten all about him and started when he stood up to leave. As he left, he looked from Harue to Genjiro and made a low guttural sound in his throat. He looked into Harue’s eyes, looked into the eyes of his friend, and walked away. Stopping at the edge of the forest, he turned and raised a long arm in what looked like a wave of goodbye, then stepped into the trees and disappeared.
“Husband,” Harue said to Genjiro, “why did you tell that monkey that I am your wife?”
“Because you are and because he is my friend.”
Harue looked at her husband, her eyes asking: “How can you be a monkey’s friend?”
Genjiro placed a hand on his wife’s knee. “I don’t really know, Harue-chan. But we share something, Yukitaro and I. We seem to understand each other without talking.”
Harue looked out across the valley toward the mountains, thinking. Then, hesitantly, she expressed what was on her mind: “Genjiro, you don’t share your food with him, do you?”
Genjiro looked at her: “Isn’t that what one does with one’s friends, Harue-chan? So I share what I have with him, and sometimes he brings food to share with me.”
“That monkey?” Harue stared at her husband in disbelief. “What kind of food, Genjiro? What kind of food could a monkey possibly bring that you would eat?” The thought of her husband eating something that the old monkey would bring with his filthy hands made her stomach turn.
“Fruit. Sometimes he brings me fruit. I don’t know where he gets it, but every once in a while Yukitaro brings me some fruit. Sometimes it’s a melon, sometimes grapes, and sometimes some kind of vegetable.”
Harue made a face. “Have you any idea where that monkey’s hands have been? Do you really think he ever washes them?” She shuddered.
Genjiro chuckled. “Well, Harue-chan, nothing that Yukitaro has given me has ever harmed me. He is a good friend. He keeps me company. And,” patting his wife’s knee, “today he has kept us both company. Now that he knows you, he is your friend, too.”
“I don’t know if I want a monkey for a friend,” she replied, “no matter how nice he is, especially one that shares his food with me.”
She looked toward the forest where the old monkey had disappeared. Remembering the guttural sound the old monkey had made as he got up to leave, she asked her husband: “What did he say as he left?”
“He thanked me for bringing you and introducing you to him.”
“Oh, Genjiro!” she exclaimed; “How could you possibly know that? You are teasing me again!” And she swatted him softly on top of his head, making him laugh.
The summer went by much as all the previous summers had done since Genjiro retired: rain or shine, he went to his looking spot at least once a day and spent an hour or so looking out over the valley and at the mountains. Once a week Harue accompanied him, packing a bento with onigiri, some seaweed, dried fish and vegetables from her garden. Yukitaro always seemed to know when she brought along a bento box, because nine times out of ten he came strolling along to join them. Genjiro always shared what they had with his friend, and each time Harue cast him a disapproving glance and lectured him as they strolled slowly home.
Then one day in early fall Yukitaro followed them home, and Harue gave her husband a stern lecture that lasted half an hour.
“How many times have I told you,” she said crossly, “that if you are too nice to that monkey, he will end up following us home and we will end up with a nuisance on our hands that we won’t be able to get rid of!”
Glaring at the door, she shook her head and made a hissing sound. “And now look!” She pointed at the door behind which she just knew the old monkey was lurking. “He has done just what I was afraid of; he has followed us home and before you know it, Gen-chan, he and all the other monkeys will be in our yard digging up the garden and pestering us and everyone else in the village!”
Genjiro listened patiently to his wife. When she stopped talking, which wasn’t for quite a while, he smiled and said: “Yukitaro will never be a nuisance, Harue-chan, you’ll see. And he’ll never permit the other monkeys to follow him to our house, just as he’s never permitted them to follow him to where we sit.”
Not appeased, Harue walked away grumbling and sat down with a book she had been reading. “Husbands!” she said to herself, determined not to talk to hers for the rest of the day. But an hour later she gave up and said: “Gen-chan, you may be right about that monkey; but the idea of having him coming up to our door, well, it is a bit uncomfortable, don’t you agree?”
Genjiro smiled, remembering the argument they had when years earlier he returned home and announced that they were taking the train the next day to look at their new home in a village a few kilometers north of Fukugawa. Harue had stared at him in disbelief.
“What are you talking about? What new home? And in what village?” She stared at him, not knowing whether he was being serious or telling one of his wry jokes. “What is wrong with the home we have, right here in Fukugawa? And why haven’t you discussed this with me before now?”
Her husband’s blank expression only made her more alarmed. “You haven’t actually bought a house without discussing it with me… have you?”
“You will like it, Harue-chan. You will see. It has a place for a vegetable garden, it is comfortable, the kind of place where we can raise our family and it is near enough to the railroad track so that I can take the train to and from work, and you can visit your family and friends in Fukugawa whenever you like.”
Harue looked at her husband long and doubtfully. “For goodness’ sake, you haven’t bought a farm, have you? And what is the name of the village, Gen-chan? It does have a name, doesn’t it?”
“Ah, no, Harue-chan,” he replied with a laugh, “it is just called ‘the village.’ And I haven’t bought a farm. It is a nice house, just like you see here in Fukugawa.”
Happily, Harue fell in love with it the moment she saw it. It had been a happy place, and they had lived a long and happy life there raising their two children, Junichi and Kiyoko. On the western edge of the village, the property suited Genjiro’s penchant for solitude and Harue’s enjoyment of visiting with neighbors. It had been a very happy fifty years.
Genjiro looked fondly at his still-disgruntled wife. “Harue-chan,” he said; ‘I know Yukitaro makes you uncomfortable, and some of the neighbors might not like his coming around here, but,” he squatted down in front of her and patted her knee, “he will not bring trouble to us.”
“Well…” Harue looked over the top of her book at him; “I’m not so sure the neighbors will like seeing him around here. They already think it’s a bit strange that you have adopted a monkey as a friend.”
“I think it was Yukitaro who adopted me.”
Harue made a wry face at her husband. “It seems pretty much a mutual attraction to me.” She sighed: “I suppose no one will object if he doesn’t make himself a pest and doesn’t bother anyone else. But I’m not really that happy about having a monkey around, and I’m not so sure the others won’t follow him and create a huge problem for everyone.” The idea of a crowd of noisy monkeys invading her yard and neighborhood sent a ripple of chills running up and down her spine, and none of Genjiro’s assurances made her feel any happier about “that monkey” coming around and invading her private space.
She put her book down and looked over the top of her glasses at her husband, who looked back at her with such a comically repentant expression on his face that she burst out laughing. Sighing, she said: “I’m sure that old monkey isn’t harmful. But I can’t imagine what he will find to do around here with two old people like us.”
“Why,” Genjiro replied brightening up, “he will keep us company and help us in the garden.”
The idea of an elderly monkey helping harvest vegetables and pull weeds made Harue laugh out loud. “Oh, you!” she exclaimed, and gave her husband a fond swat on the head with her book. That evening after Genjiro had retired to bed, Harue picked up her pen and a pad of paper and wrote Kiyoko to tell her that Yukitaro was going to be helping her parents in their garden. Three days later, her daughter called from her home in Sapporo. “What are you talking about, mother? Dad’s monkey friend? What do you mean, helping you in the garden? What does a monkey know about being a gardener? Is this one of dad’s jokes?”
Laughing, Harue told her daughter about the old monkey following them home, about the comically repentant expression on Genjiro’s face when he thought she would have none of him anywhere near their house, and about her misgivings about having the old monkey show up unannounced at their door or jump over the garden fence while she was busy weeding or tending her mountain potatoes, spinach, carrots, kabocha, green onions and nira.
Harue talked about the uproar it would likely cause in the village if the old monkey began coming around, and they both laughed at the idea of Yukitaro acting as a gardener’s helper, much like Kiyoko and her brother when they were children.
“Do you think he will work out better than Jun-chan and I did when we were kids?” Kiyoko teased.
“I hope so, Ki-chan,” her mother replied, laughing; “He surely couldn’t be any worse.”
Much to Harue’s relief, summer passed into fall without Yukitaro making an appearance at the house, though he made regular visits to Genjiro’s favorite place for sitting and contemplating, or just sitting and looking, which is what they did most often, man and monkey, sitting stock still, like statues.
Then one day in early fall, Yukitaro did something he had never done before: as he got up to leave, he motioned with an arm for Genjiro to follow him. Cocking his head, Genjiro said: “Do you want me to go with you, Yukitaro-san?” When the big monkey repeated his motion, Genjiro got to his feet and followed slowly after him, the two of them disappearing into the forest together. Once in the forest, Yukitaro took his friend by the hand, going through where the villagers came each fall to harvest wild mushrooms, and on to a place where Genjiro had never been. Releasing Genjiro’s hand, Yukitaro bent down and plucked a large mushroom from under some leaves, holding it up for Genjiro to see before dropping it into his hand. Genjiro had never in his life seen a mushroom as large and delectable looking as that one. Looking around, he saw that there were dozens more peeking out from the forest floor. With Yukitaro’s permission, Genjiro filled a a large, square cloth with about a dozen of the mushrooms. “Harue-chan will be so surprised,” he said. “She will want to know where I found them. I’ll tell her I found them in the forest, but I won’t tell her where without your permission.” His wife would nearly die of curiosity and that she would pester him with questions until he told her that Yukitaro had shown him where the giant mushrooms were and that taking her without the old monkey’s permission would not be a wise thing to do. Yukitaro, seeming to understand, nodded his head.
And sure enough, when Genjiro arrived home and unwrapped the mushrooms, Harue peppered him with questions until he explained the situation. And then she resigned herself to having to wait until her husband’s monkey friend gave his permission, however long that took.
When the snow came in the fall, Genjiro’s visits to his looking place happened more and more seldom, until they stopped altogether when the snow became too deep for him to clear a path there. During the winter he and Harue and the other villagers went to a nearby hot springs where everyone bathed, warmed themselves in the hot, steaming water and shared thoughts and experiences with each other. When the villagers asked Genjiro and Harue about Yukitaro, they always gave the same answer: Genjiro said that he enjoyed the old monkey’s company, and Harue said to ask Genjiro because she knew nothing except that Yukitaro had accepted her once he learned that she was Genjiro’s wife. “How did he learn that, Harue-chan?” her friends asked. “Genjiro told him,” she replied. Their response was always the same: “Oh…”
People stopped asking questions after that until the village was gathered at the hot spring later that winter and it wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement made by the village mechanic, Tsuguo Taniguchi, a large, loud man who was known for his skill at fixing things, and for his constant grumblings. Glaring at Genjiro and Harue from a spot halfway to the other side of the pool, Tsuguo expressed what was on nearly everyone’s mind.
“We don’t like the idea of a monkey coming into the village,” he growled, giving a sour look at the old couple.
Genjiro regarded his neighbor for a long moment before calmly replying. “Yukitaro doesn’t come into the village, Tsuguo-san. If he comes around at all, it will be to our home, which is at the edge of the village, furthest away from your house.”
“How do you know he won’t end up going where he wants?” the mechanic replied, not mollified. “And once that monkey comes to your house, what’s to prevent all the other monkeys from coming, too? Pretty soon the village will be overrun by a whole mob of monkeys! I tell you, Genjiro,” Tsuguo Taniguchi said, slapping the water vigorously with one of his large hands, “I don’t like it one bit! Monkeys are dangerous!”
Genjiro looked long at his neighbor before replying in a measured tone of voice: “Well, Tsuguo-san, if Yukitaro comes near your place, please let me know and I’ll speak to him. If he comes to my house, I don’t see how that should be a worry to anyone but Harue-chan and me. As for any of the other monkeys coming around, I’m sure that Yukitaro will not permit it.” Smiling, he poured a pan of hot water over his head, then turned to his wife and poured hot water over her back, scrubbing it with a large cloth until it turned rosy. Mouth shut, the village mechanic looked round at his fellow villagers with an angry but resigned expression on his face. Like it or not, Genjiro was going to have that monkey around his house, and no amount of grumbling was going to change a thing. Tsuguo poured a large pan of water over his head and began scrubbing himself until his skin shone s bright red as Yukitaro’s face, which made both Genjiro and Harue smile.
It was during the village’s second trip to the hot spring that winter that Yukitaro appeared and quietly set himself down into the steaming water next to Genjiro and Harue. The old monkey’s sudden appearance caused a panic among the villagers, who scrambled to the opposite end of the pool and looked anxiously into the surrounding trees for the mob of monkeys they expected to see, staring menacingly down at them. When no monkeys showed their faces, the villagers’ anxiety gradually subsided into nervous glances toward the opposite end of the pool where Genjiro and Harue scrubbed each other’s back and the monkey Yukitaro ladled hot water over himself with his hands. No one had ever seen a snow monkey as big as Yukitaro, who was over twice the size of a normal snow monkey, and with his winter coat looked even bigger.
When one of the village girls whispered to her mother that Yukitaro looked more like a short, hairy old man than a monkey, she got a reproving swat on the back of the head from her mother, who had to admit that the old monkey looked that way to her as well. And when Yukitaro picked up the Yamada’s pan and poured water over himself and sat still while Genjiro scrubbed his back, the whole village stared in disbelief.
“See,” the girl said to her mother, “I told you so. Yukitaro is not a monkey; he is a hairy old man.” When Yukitaro looked at her, she was sure of it. And no one was ever able to convince her otherwise.
Yukitaro continued to visit the hot spring during that winter, sitting silently next to his friends and allowing Genjiro to douse him with the steaming water and rub him down with a towel that Harue brought for just that purpose. Over that winter the other villagers grew so used to having the old monkey join them that, except for the ever-grumbling Tsuguo, they no longer took notice of him and once, when the old monkey didn’t appear, had to admit that they actually missed him.
When spring arrived and people became busy planting gardens and going to and fro between the village and nearby towns, occasionally venturing as far as Sapporo and Asahikawa, Yukitaro was forgotten by everyone except the little girl who missed the little hairy old man she saw him to be, and Tsuguo the mechanic who told everyone that, one of these days, “that old pest will show up with every monkey in the forest; just you wait and see!”
So when Yukitaro did appear at the Yamada’s home one sunny morning as the old couple was working in their garden, nosey Tsuguo made sure that everyone heard about it, embellished with dire predictions about hordes of monkeys swarming over the village, stealing and scaring everyone to death.
“We’ll have to drive them out of the village by force!” he said, eyes popping and arms waving.
But the invasion never happened. All that summer and into the fall, the monkey Yukitaro made regular visits to the Yamada home and was seen sitting peacefully in their garden watching as the old couple planted, weeded, and harvested their vegetables. The only thing of note that occurred during any of these visits was during the fall harvest when Harue was harvesting her mountain potatoes.
Yukitaro watched carefully as she pulled the potatoes and stacked them in a basket before carrying them into the back of the house for storage. Two days later, Yukitaro was seen walking toward the old couple’s house carrying the largest mountain potato anyone had ever seen. This created quite a stir, because Yukitaro carried it over one shoulder like a man carries a club.
When Tsuguo the mechanic saw him marching toward the village with it over his shoulder, he ran around the village yelling for the men to arm themselves, because “I saw that damned monkey coming toward the village carrying a club to attack Genjiro and Harue! We have to protect them! Come quick!”
But when a contingent of villagers timidly approached the Yamada’s house armed with hoes, sticks and one ancient rifle and saw that Yukitaro’s ‘huge club’ was only the largest mountain potato any of them had seen, they went back home rollicking with laughter. Poor Tsuguo never lived it down. Yukitaro, seeing his friends harvest mountain potatoes from their garden, had gone deep into his forest home where mountain potatoes were plentiful, dug up the largest wild mountain potato that he could find and brought it to his friends as a gift.
That winter passed uneventfully, passing smoothly into spring, bringing with it a sprinkling of new babies and the promise of a good growing season. Genjiro and his wife continued much as they had done the year before and the year before that, the only difference being that they were older. Genjiro made fewer visits to his looking place, and Harue’s plantings were smaller. Noticing this, Yukitaro’s visits to their home became more frequent: instead of appearing one or twice a week, he was there nearly every day, including those times when the couple’s two children visited from Sapporo and Tokyo, bringing their children with them. In this manner, the seasons passed uneventfully except for the old couple’s diminishing energies.
In July of Genjiro’s eightieth year, Harue, the light of his life, came down with a cold that refused to go away. By the first of August the cold had turned into pneumonia, and Genjiro called his son and daughter and told them to come right away. They arrived the next day. As the family was gathered around Harue’s bed, their grandson Junichiro caught something out of the corner of his eye: it was Yukitaro looking in at the window, watching.
“Look!” Junichiro said to his father; “It’s Yukitaro.”
“Go and let him in, Jun-chan,” bringing a look of consternation from his wife, who had never grown used to the big monkey and didn’t like it when he showed up during their visits.
When Junichiro went to the door and opened it, Yukitaro was waiting. Walking into the room, the old monkey stood next to his friend and looked down at Harue’s still form for a long moment.
Then, looking at his friend’s grief-stricken face, he did something that no one believed a monkey would do: he put one long hairy comforting arm around Genjiro’s shoulder and the two of them mourned Harue’s passing in grief-stricken silence.
Several days later, when the villagers were all gathered in the village’s tiny cemetery for the interment of Harue’s ashes, Junichiro noticed movement coming from the nearby forest. Looking, he saw Yukitaro walking toward them at the head of a large crowd of snow monkeys. Nudging his father, he nodded his head toward the approaching monkeys.
“Look, father! It’s Yukitaro. He has brought all the monkeys with him.”
One by one, led by Yukitaro, the monkeys gathered around the villagers. Yukitaro went up to Harue’s tombstone and laid a flower in front of it, then turned and looked up into his old friend’s eyes with an expression of such sorrow and compassion that it brought tears to the eyes of everyone there.
Then, just as they had come, the monkeys followed Yukitaro back to the forest, and disappeared.
One month later, Genjiro died of a heart attack, and the scene repeated itself. As the villagers listened to the Buddhist priest intone his prayers, Yukitaro and his monkeys came out of the forest walking toward the village cemetery. The only difference this time was that each of the monkeys, from Yukitaro to the infants, carried a single white flower. And one by one they approached Genjiro’s tombstone and laid their flower in front of it. Yukitaro was the last to lay his flower in front of his friend’s stone, and as he put it down, he reached up and touched the stone, running his fingers over the carved characters of his old friend’s name. Then he turned to Harue’s name and ran his fingers over it. When he was finished, he turned and stood in front of his old friend’s son and daughter and their families and looked long into their eyes. And then, turning, he and the other monkeys disappeared back into the forest.
It was early the next spring that Genjiro’s grandson Junichiro went into the forest and discovered that the monkeys had disappeared. Walking deep into the forest, he came into a clearing where he came across the bones of a very large monkey.
“Yukitaro,” he murmured. Gathering up the bones, he wrapped them in the large square cloth of a furoshiki and took them back to his grandparents’ home. Later that day, he and his father buried them next to his grandparents’ grave. And on the first anniversary of his grandparents’ death, Junichiro and his father placed a small black headstone next to their headstone with this simple inscription:
And that is the story of how a monkey became the good friend of an old man and his wife. It has taught me much about the possibilities of friendship and kindness and the bonds that exist between man and man and man and animal when we are open to them. It is an expression of who my grandfather was, a man of peace who showed compassion to every living being, and my grandmother, who was his lifelong companion, friend and light of his life.
Junichiro Fujii Tokyo
~ ~ ~
Comments from readers
Here are a few of the sixty reviews the book received on Amazon.com.
‘The Old Man and the Monkey’ is what good writing is all about: it makes you look within to find the best that you can be. I love this story. It gets better every time I read it and grounds me once again.” — Jean Sullivan, Seattle, USA
“Reflects the rare values of unconditional friendship; love, trust, respect, loyalty and dependability. It also shows that being humane can bridge the differences between cultures or in this case, species.” — Stella Evelyne Tesha, the Netherlands, author of “A Journey Into Life” and “Love as Flowers.”
‘The Old Man and The Monkey’ brought me back to the days, when I would pick up a book and not put it down before I read the last word. The story captured me, made me curious about what the next page will reveal.” — Bianka Wettin, the Netherlands
“I was immediately drawn to ‘The Old Man and The Monkey’! Wow! Nothing short of monkey magic. Excellent work. Beautiful!” —Thom Rutledge, Nashville, author of the book ‘Embracing Fear’
“The sequence of events, from the very beginning, is so well-crafted that that ‘dream-like’ state of a story is sustained throughout. The economy of words used gives just enough information to make you understand and feel you’re with Yukitaro and Genjiro and, at the same time, leaves you wanting to know more.” — Aneeta Sundararaj, editor, Malaysia: http:// http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com, a storytelling resource website
‘The Old Man and the Monkey’ has a fresh and clear voice that invites the reader to look beyond the expected routine of small ritual and custom. It takes a monkey to waken the old man and his wife and the other villagers to the wonder of life and death and friendship. — Wendy MacLean, Canada, author of the poetry books ‘Spirit Song in Ancient Boughs’ and ‘Rough Angel.’
About the author
George Polley was born in Santa Barbara, California and raised in Seattle, Washington. He has lived in California (Berkeley and Stockton), Illinois (Cooks Mills and Villa Grove), Minnesota (Luverne, Marshal and Minneapolis), and from 1984 until early in 2008, in Seattle, when he and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan so that she could fulfill her dream of returning to the land of her birth.
After high school, he completed his undergraduate work at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon (B.A., Sociology and Anthropology), and received a Master’s Degree in Social Work at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana campus. He has always had two parallel careers: mental health professional and writer and poet.
His work has appeared in the South Dakota Review, Crow’s Nest, Expanding Horizons, The Enchanted Self, Community Mental Health Journal, Maturing, The Lyon County (Minnesota) Review Wine Rings, North Country Anvil, North American Mentor Magazine, the McLean County (Illinois) Poetry Review, River Bottom, Tower Talks and Foundations.
He has also authored several booklets in the mental health field, two of them co-authored with Ana Dvoredsky, M.D. in 2007.