They were round-shouldered and droopy-headed like mourners, the shadowy
child-sized creatures, squatting by the side of the sloping road. All facing the
same way, too, as though silently venerating the muted dirty sunset beyond
the holy city. Motionless at the edge of the ravine, they were miles from the
city and the wide flat river that snaked into the glow, the sun going gray,
smoldering in a towering heap of dust like a cloudbank. The lamps below had
already come on, and in the darkness the far-off city lay like a velvety textile
humped in places and picked out in squirts of gold. What were they looking
at? The light dimmed, went colder, and the creatures stirred.
Theyre almost human, Audie Blunden said, and looked closer and saw their matted fur.
With a bark like a bad cough, the biggest monkey raised his curled tail, lowered his arms, and thrust forward on his knuckles. The others, skittering on smaller limbs, followed him, their tails nodding; and the distinct symmetry of the roadside disappeared under the tumbling bodies as the great troop of straggling monkeys moved along the road and up the embankment toward the stringy trees at the edge of the forest.
They scare me, Beth Blunden said, and though the nearest monkey was more than fifteen feet away she could feel the prickle of its grubby fur creeping across the bare skin of her arm. She remembered sharply the roaring baboon in Kenya which had appeared near her cot under the thorn trees like a demon, its doggy teeth crowding its wide-open mouth. The thing had attacked the guides dog, a gentle Lab, bitten its haunch, laying it open to the bone, before being clubbed away by the maddened African. That was another of their trips.
I hate apes, Beth said.
No. Apes are more like us, Audie said, and in the darkness he covertly picked his nose. Was it the dry air?
I think its the other way around.
But Audie hadnt heard. He was peering into the thickening dusk. Incredible, he said in a whisper. I think they were watching the sunset, just lingering for the last warmth of the sun.
Like us, she said.
And Beth stared at him, not because of what hed said but the way hed said it. He sounded so pompous chewing on this simple observation. They traveled a lot, and she had noticed how travel often made this normally straightforward man pretentious.
They were at the edge of a low summit, one of the foothills of the Himalayas, above the holy city. Farther up the ridge from where they were stayinga health spa called Agnion a clear day they could see snow- topped peaks. They had come to Agni for their health, planning to stay a week. The week passed quickly. They stayed another, and now they renewed their arrangement from week to week, telling themselves that theyd leave when they were ready. They were world travelers, yet theyd never seen anything like this.
Still, the file of monkeys hurried up the road with a skip-drag gait, the big bold monkey leader up front, now and then barking in his severe cough-like way.
A man emerged from the twilit road, stepping neatly to allow the monkeys to pass by. The Blundens were not startled. Their three weeks here had prepared them. They had not seen much of India, but they knew that whenever they had hesitated anywhere, looking puzzled or even thoughtful, an Indian had stepped forward to explain, usually an old man, a bobble- headed pedant, urgent with irrelevancies. This one wore a white shirt, a thick vest and scarf, baggy pants, and sandals. Big horn-rimmed glasses distorted his eyes.
Copyright © 2007 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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