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Excerpting At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories By Kij Johnson

November 17, 2012
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They turn up later, back at the tour bus. There’s a smallish dog door, and in the hours before morning the monkeys let themselves in alone or in small groups, and get themselves glasses of water from the tap. If more than one returns at the same time, they murmur a bit among themselves like college students meeting in the dorm halls after bar time.

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For the act, the monkeys do tricks or dress up in outfits and act out hit movies—The Matrix is very popular, as is anything where the monkeys dress up like little orcs. The maned monkeys, the lion-tails and the colobuses, have a lion-tamer act with the old capuchin female, Pango, dressed in a red jacket and carrying a whip and a small chair. The chimpanzee (whose name is Mimi, and no, she is not a monkey) can do actual sleight of hand; she’s not very good, but she’s the best Chimp Pulling A Coin From Someone’s Ear in the world.

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The monkey show is very popular, with a schedule of 127 shows this year at fairs and festivals across the Midwest and Great Plains. Aimee could do more, but she likes to let everyone have a couple months off at Christmas.

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“But for the monkeys it is also a magical object. It allows them to travel—no one can say where. Not even I—” she pauses; “—can tell you this. Only the monkeys know, and they share no secrets. “Where do they go? Into heaven, foreign lands, other worlds—or some dark abyss? We cannot follow. They will vanish before our eyes, vanish from this most ordinary of things.” And after the bathtub is inspected and she has told the audience that there will be no final spectacle in the show—“It will be hours before they return from their secret travels”—and called for applause for them, she gives the cue.

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No one seems to know how the monkeys vanish or where they go. Sometimes they return holding foreign coins or durian fruit, or wearing pointed Moroccan slippers. Every so often one returns pregnant or leading an unfamiliar monkey by the hand. The number of monkeys is not constant. “I just don’t get it,” Aimee keeps asking Geof, as if he has any idea. Aimee never knows anything anymore. She’s been living without any certainties, and this one thing—well, the whole thing, the fact the monkeys get along so well and know how to do card tricks and just turned up in her life and vanish from the bathtub; everything—she coasts with that most of the time, but every so often, when she feels her life is wheeling without brakes down a long hill, she starts poking at this again.

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Here’s the trick to the bathtub trick. There is no trick. The monkeys pour across the stage and up the ladder and into the bathtub and they settle in and then they vanish. The world is full of strange things, things that make no sense, and maybe this is one of them. Maybe the monkeys choose not to share, that’s cool, who can blame them.

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Diaries are kept by men: strong brush strokes on smooth rice paper, gathered into sheaves and tied with ribbon and placed in a lacquered box. I know this, for I have seen one such diary. It’s said that there are also noble ladies who keep diaries, in the capital or on their journeys in the provinces. These diaries (it is said) are often filled with grief, for a woman’s life is filled with sadness and waiting.

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There were voices outside the door again, and it was suddenly thrown wide. The cook was howling, yelling with rage. A woman stood behind him in rich robes, with a huge red fan concealing her face. I’d seen her before: I knew she was the mistress of the house, Shikibu. She tilted the fan slightly to stare in at us. Light through the fan colored her skin, but she was very beautiful. I growled; she screamed and jumped back. “Foxes!”

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“Hush, both of you! You are making it worse.” “Oh, Husband!” the woman cried. She was shaking. “They are evil spirits. We must destroy them!” “They are only animals—foxes, young foxes. Quiet, you are frightening them.” Her fingers knotted on the fan’s sticks, “No! Foxes are all evil. Everyone knows this. They will destroy our house. Kill them—please!” “Go.” Yoshifuji made a gesture at the cook staring open-mouthed at Shikibu.

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“You will die,” he said. “Without food, you’ll waste away.” “I don’t care. I love this man.” He was silent for a while. “Nevertheless,” he finally said.

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We watched all this for a time but no one looked under the storehouse. No doubt it seemed too humble a place to find a man.

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When I slipped back into my woman’s body, I made a discovery. Mother shrieked when I told her. “Pregnant?” “I could feel it. When I made myself a woman again, I could feel it, a little male.” “A son! Oh, such news! You will bring such honor to the house!” “How can it? I am a fox. My child will be a fox. He will see and leave me.” Mother laughed at me. “You have lived all this time with a man and you have not learned the first thing yet. He will see a son because that is what he wants. He will be so happy! I’m going to go tell your grandfather. A son!”

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My delivery of my child was easy, comparatively painless as these things go. Yoshifuji rushed into the room as soon as Mother would allow him, and brushed through the curtain to my side. “My son, let me see him!” he said. “You marvelous wife of mine!” I gestured for the nurse to show my husband the child. He peeled away the tight cloths. “What a child! Wife, you are extraordinary. A beautiful healthy boy.” I said nothing, seeing for a moment the shadow of a man in filthy, ragged robes crouching in the dark to kiss a fox kit on its closed eyes.

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Time was strange in the fox-world. Years passed for us and for Yoshifuji. Our son grew rapidly until he hunted birds with toy arrows and began to ride a fat gold and black spotted pony. Years passed but they were only days in the outer world. My brother, who brought us much of our food, said that my husband’s other wife had returned.

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“Leave him, please leave him, they mean nothing to him, I love him—” I begged and prayed as the man dragged me through our house, out into the gardens. My hands bled from the hard edge of the belt. If nothing else around us was real, I knew this was, this hot blood in my palms. Yoshifuji kept turning back, trying to help me. The man just jabbed at him again, and forced him stumbling on.

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Yoshifuji wept for many days. I heard him when I crawled through the darkness to his door, calling my name and the name of our son. The household summoned priests and a yin-yang diviner to purge my husband of his “enchantment,” but they say its hold has been strong.

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