The Monkey Puzzle
They had not always been stupid, but they had forgotten how to survive without the protection of suits and filters, nanites and processers. But it went deeper than just the visceral and the somatic; they had been united for so long, that to have lost the very connections which bound them together, to have been cast out as individuals and dumped onto a world so alien, many of their number welcomed death rather than withstand the rigours of daily existence.
What was the point of enduring a life so full of suffering?
If this was at the behest of gods, an example of their greatness, to fling them from the heavens to this hellish place, then it was a mercy they would reject. They still had pride - a sense of who they were and what they had really been. They would not be reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt of a planet so aptly named.
But there were others – fewer to be sure - who would not accept this fate. They fought against everything this planet could throw at them. With wood, stone and fire. They lived in caves. They hunted. And like the primitives they had become, they wore the skins of those they had slain. In time, they learned to cultivate, and gradually – so much longer than they would have ever thought and of a duration that so many were lost, they bent this Earth; bruised, bullied and tamed it until it submitted to their will and a civilization of sorts began to rise again. But so much had been irretrievably forgotten.
In the beginning, they had tried to remember: The concepts of space-time, dimensions beyond the fourth, the micro and the macro, the building blocks which made the stars, the elements and the blackness in between but when life is short and everyday a struggle, and when all they could rely on was memory and the word of mouth, it does not take long before there is little left. And soon fact becomes superstition, the ravings of the fantastical, the prophecies of the mad, mistaken edifices to the dead, senseless etchings on hidden rocks. If it had meant something once it meant nothing now. And even if they could see the answers, they had forgotten the questions. What little sense had quite gone out of their heads. The story of Babel never just about language or overarching ambition.
We had been united.
We made it to the stars.
But we were defeated. And as one we were forced to forget; our ability to understand each other, so long taken for granted, subverted by the senseless babble of so many words and languages. Are you surprised that we broke down and the world divided? The books we tried to read or the tongues we spoke could never replace the purity of what had made us great before - the concise communion of the mind. Language never meant for Mankind’s good but a force for dominion and division. The wise, wary of its many misinterpretations, conscious of its power to confuse. To make us drift along in other’s dreams.
Only the foolish will fall under spells wrought to bind us to another’s bidding.
And we have all been fools.
When she first met Fintan, Estrella is disappointed. He is younger, shorter and smaller than she was led to believe. Only nine to her eleven but it is not just his youth which falls short of her expectations. She was promised feral, and she anticipated something alive - something bristling with energy and character. After all, isn’t he his mother’s son? Instead, she gets nothing. Barely a word or acknowledgement. Since his arrival two days ago he has spent the entirety of his time in the attic room. He has even taken his meals upstairs.
What is wrong with him?
She tries to forgive. She makes excuses on his behalf. It is the shock of finding his new family or a delayed bereavement for the mother he has never met or the tiredness from his long journey. This has certainly exhausted her mother who has been insufferable since. But none of this washes. He is either an idiot or an ill-mannered lout. He has no right to reject their hospitality. He does not deserve their kindness.
Her father is more forgiving. “Give him time,” he urges but by the third day, Estrella's patience has worn thin, and her irritation mutates to a more malevolent incarnation.
It is Christmas. Her favourite time of year. He is spoiling this. Just by being in his room. Alone. Casting a pall of uneasy disquiet throughout the house. It is impossible to enjoy yourself without thinking of him.
Estrella waits for her parents to leave before venturing up the attic stairs. She intends to have it out. She will have at least an hour before her mother returns. Her father’s absence less certain. “Who'd be an Archdeacon at Christmas?”
She raps on his door and hearing no response, turns the handle. The door is locked. “Fintan!” She tries again. “Let me in.” She hears rustling. “Oh, come on.” She hammers with the side of her fist. “Damn you. I just want to talk. That's all. Then I’ll leave you to whatever you’re doing.” As an afterthought, her voice softens. “It's Estrella, by the way…”
As if he does not know.
She sinks down, sitting with her back to the door, thwarted. Only her mother is as intransigent as this. “Look, I'm sorry.” She pauses. “I’ve no right to be angry.” She waits. “I know nothing about you.” A floorboard creaks. “It must be hard to grow up without a family. I can’t imagine that. But you do have a family now. It may not be the family you want. Or wish for. But we are your family.” She hears him snort.
Why does the mention of her family provoke such scorn?
She is angry at this injustice. They did not need to take him in. She wants to fling this back at him, but something holds her back and makes her take an extra breath. “You don't want us. You don't want anything to do with us.”
It should have been obvious. Perhaps she has known this all along.
The slow sarcastic handclaps confirm the truth.
“Oh, I get it. Enough!” And the clapping peters out.
“Why don't you?”
“Ask your mother.”
Estrella does not expect a response. “My mother?”
“Forget it. There's no point anyway. She made it obvious what she would do if I talked to you.”
“What would she?”
“Does it matter?”
“Why do you care? I'm not stupid!”
“Didn't say you are. Just that it does matter. And my mother can be... over dramatic at times.”
“You must be joking.” His voice is loud and sharp. “I spent two days with her. I know her better than you think. Do you know what she said? The best thing that I could have ever done was to have been buried with my mother. She said that would have brought happiness to all.”
“She didn't…” But as Estrella starts, she understands the truth of this. “But my father isn't the same.” Fintan does not respond. “Look, I know my mother can be difficult.” She ignores his derision. “But my father told me to be kind to you. He wouldn't have said that unless he meant it.” Again, nothing. “You can't stay in there forever, Fintan. I'll talk to my father, and we’ll sort this. I promise. Please open the door. We can’t talk like this!”
“Who do you think locked me in?”
She assumed that he was the master of his own prison.
“You'll forgive me if I don't share your certainty in his kindness.”
Estrella cannot remember a time when her father has been deliberately cruel or uncharitable. “What do you mean?”
Fintan misses the significance of her sudden change in tone.
“Your father locked me in. Said I couldn't be trusted.”
“Trusted with what?”
“I don't know. You'll have to ask him.”
“But he wouldn't lock you in. He would never do that.”
“I'm telling you.”
“You are mistaken, Fintan.”
“What could I possibly gain from lying, Estrella? Please tell me.”
As she lies in bed later that night replaying this conversation, she cannot convince herself of a satisfactory answer to this. Neither can she find an explanation why her father would consider enforcing an act so foreign to his nature and so at odds with the person she knows so well.
She asks her father the next morning. He focuses on her disobedience rather than the matter at hand. When further pressed, he turns and with unflinching gaze, as if daring her to disbelieve, says: “It was to protect your mother. She was unhinged with anxiety about what the headmaster told her. Fintan destroyed school property. Smashed a kitchen tray. Stole and bullied to a degree that the headmaster had never previously encountered. He even had to remove him from a dormitory to protect others. Your mother was rightly concerned that he would continue his reign of terror here. On the journey home she asked the coachman to bind his arms. Even then, she couldn't trust herself to sleep.”
“But he's nine, for Saint’s sake. You can't believe he's capable of harm at such an age?”
“It's not what I believe that's important, Estrella. Your mother is adamant on this matter. Under no circumstances are you to have any contact with him. I thought I had made this plain. I promised her, on all that was holy, that I would take this threat seriously.”
“Not very Christian, is it?”
“I had no choice, Estrella.”
It is a truth in the journey of all children that there will come a time which is almost universal to all, that their estimation of their parents’ worth will dim. They will no longer be the Gods of all things, just fallible mortals, as capable of mistakes as anyone. For some, this realisation is insidious - a slow reduction of respect. But for others the hoods will fall with such alacrity that when you blink, the person you once saw will no longer be there. For Estrella, this time is now. She loves and honours her father – it will take more than this to change that - but when she blinks back her tears, she knows that he is not quite the person she always considered him to be.
When the coachman binds his arms, he has only one thought. He is about to die. There is nothing he can do. As dusk turns to night his aunt, Octavia Green, stares at him from the other side of the carriage with a gaze so calculating, as if every step has been ordered and planned. It is just a question of how and when. As he awaits his fate, the twinkling lights of the city approach. The suburban traffic, the stink of piss and dung interlaced with the sweetness of cinnamon, cloves, and Christmas baking. Everywhere pungent wood smoke and burnt oil hangs heavy in the night air.
The transition from carriage to town house is sudden and unexpected. Fintan stands in the opulent hall blinded by the brilliance of lights glittering from a tear-drop chandelier. The coachman releases his bonds and shepherds him to an even larger and more luxurious reception room where he is welcomed by an over-effusive bundle of white chiffon, silver bangles and blonde braided locks. Arms envelope him in a hug so unexpected he retreats, instinctively trying to protect himself. It is at this point that he glimpses the pretty eleven-year-old, laughing at his discomfort. “Fintan, lovely to meet you! I’m Estrella!” He looks mutely at her, aware of her mother’s glaring presence, daring him to respond. “Forgive my manners,” she apologises. “You look done in.” Even before he blinks, her father glides in, firmly pushing him from the room, mumbling perfunctory introductions which stifle any more meaningful exchange.
The attic room is warm and cosy, and although he knows it for a prison, it is relief that he has cheated death which dominate his immediate thoughts. The largest bed occupies most of the central space. A door on the gable side leads to a small water closet and sink. There are two dormer windows. From the west, he discerns a few faint stars and the dim reflection of snow and swaying trees. The east facing aspect looks down upon the street, then further out, dozens of spires, minarets and towers stretch as far as he can see. A faded low-slung tanned leather armchair snuggles under the lowest part of the sloping roof, and behind this, on either side of the water closet door, bookshelves built into the gable wall contain a selection of ancient encyclopaedias and hard back reference books, their spines frayed and split, their titles faded and worn.
He spends an hour exploring the confines of his attic prison, ignoring the pangs of gnawing hunger, reminders that he has not eaten all day. When he runs the faucet, a rust brown belch of spray and liquid splutters forth. The pipes groan and wail. He cups a handful of the bloody liquid and with eyes shut, gulps the metallic dregs. He convinces himself it does not taste half as awful as it looks.
He buries himself beneath the covers of the oversized bed and falls into a fitful sleep.
The next two days are punctuated by the regular delivery of meals. The coachman, now valet, sets the silver tray on the small desk inset into the west facing window. A pot of sweet tea and a large jug of fresh ice-cold water accompanies each meal. In between, Fintan reads or gazes at the thoroughfare below, or paces or lies on the bed. He is being treated appallingly. But he has also been provided with the finest food he has ever savoured, the most magnificently comfortable bed he has ever slept in, a private bathroom and a decent library. None of this makes sense. If this were solely due to the malevolence of Octavia Green, his situation would have been worse. His food rank and inedible, his room emptied of all comforts.
His uncle visits him on the first morning of his arrival. He stands to attention before him. He is accused of crimes he has no knowledge of, lectured on the importance of integrity, respect for his fellow man, and the sanctity of family life. He cannot comprehend what any of this has to do with him. His uncle’s incomprehensible words wash over him. Just as in the headmaster's study when facing impending punishment, he does not offer any defence. He is ignorant of the accusations levelled at him.
Why cannot they trust him?
Fintan is only nine. He does not believe in the bible stories as if belief is only a simple act of faith. He knows this narrative to represent a greater truth - a frame of reference so certain that to think anything else is not just heresy but idiocy. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. If the word of God is true, ipso facto he has to respect the mouthpieces of God, even if they say things which are beyond his comprehension. He can doubt an uncle but never an Archdeacon.
But there are other forces at work. The attic library is weird. There are no books on Eden or the promised land. No mention of Babel. A child will accept almost anything but even Fintan can see that these ancient tomes - their delicate pages yellow and musty - contain material out of kilter with everything he has previously held to be true. Why pretend monsters roamed the earth millions of years before the world could ever have been created? There are books on butterflies. Why has he never seen any of these magical creatures? The solar system, the moons of Jupiter, quantum entanglement, harnessing the solar winds; pages and pages filled with complex hieroglyphics which he only recognises as formulas from the equal signs. He wonders about the absence of God in any of this. If he is present in all things, then why is he not here? How can the sun be over a thousand times more massive than all the planets, all the moons and all the asteroids combined? How can anyone even know this? How is it possible for our solar system to travel at such ridiculous speeds? How can there be twice as much water in one of Jupiter’s moons than in the whole of the Earth? And as for the impossible number of stars in our galaxy and the impossible number of galaxies in the universe and the impossible distances between, he is certain that none of this could ever be correct. But why have so many people taken so much effort constructing such disturbing mysteries? What madness gripped them to conspire against creation and all that is sacred?
He considers this to be some form of test. He has been deliberately exposed to blasphemy and corruption to determine his integrity. He will not be tempted. But with nothing else to occupy his mind, he keeps being drawn back to the library of limitless possibilities.